Picasso Going on the Auction Block to Fund MoMA’s Potential Push Into NFTs

A $70 million art collection endowed to the museum is being auctioned off, and the proceeds will go towards growing its ‘digital audience.’

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NFTs shown at the 0X.17 Gallery in lower Manhattan include Bored Apes, CyrptoPunks and other nonfungible token “art.” Everyone knows the best artwork comes with a hashtag and number to let you know just how many similar versions there are out in the world.
NFTs shown at the 0X.17 Gallery in lower Manhattan include Bored Apes, CyrptoPunks and other nonfungible token “art.” Everyone knows the best artwork comes with a hashtag and number to let you know just how many similar versions there are out in the world.
Photo: Kyle Barr (Gizmodo)

The Museum of Modern Art mission statement is to “connect people from around the world to the art of our time.” Unfortunately, it seems like New York’s most prominent purveyor of “thought-provoking art” has some abstract reasons for considering snapping up a few digital artworks in the form of NFTs.

The pieces from the likes of Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Francis Bacon (the painter, not the English philosopher), and Auguste Rodin were originally part of CBS founder William Paley’s collection before being lent to the museum by Paley’s foundation after he died in 1990. The works include Picasso’s Guitar on a Table and Bacon’s triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of Henrietta Morales which they hope will go for $20 million and $35 million respectively.

The Wall Street Journal first reported late Tuesday on MoMA and the William S. Paley Foundation’s plan to put 29 of the collection’s 81 pieces up for auction at Sotheby’s auction house. Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA, told the WSJ they were thinking about expanding the museum’s online presence on its own website through digital walkthroughs as well as off-site on social media.

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The museum hopes to fetch $70 to $100 million in the sale and at least some of the funds might go toward a purchase of MoMA’s first set of NFTs. Lowry told the WSJ they have teams monitoring the digital art scene to look for potential artists or purchases. The museum hadn’t been so keen to snatch up any NFTs when the scene was at its peak in mid-to-late 2021, with the MoMA director telling the Journal they are aware they lend any art they collect an “imprimatur” or a standard of quality, “but that doesn’t mean we should avoid the domain.”

We reached out to the MoMA to ask what kinds of NFT art it might be considering and a spokesperson told us that “the new endowment will be used to fund digital initiatives as well as new acquisitions to MoMA’s collection—the endowment is flexible and open-ended and no concrete plans have been made yet.” It’s an important question since the most popular, recognizable, and lucrative nonfungible tokens are derivative, AI-produced lines like Bored Apes or Cryptopunks. It’s hard to imagine a wall of these mass-produced, unoriginal pieces sharing walls with the likes of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

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MoMA might run into other problems inherent in the NFT world. Token marketplaces like OpenSea have struggled to deal with copies of NFTs being put up for sale, which really hobbles the whole “digital scarcity” benefit that’s supposed to be inherent in the promise of nonfungible tokens. The online art gallery DeviantArt has had to create AI tools to help detect copycats and stolen artwork. Owning NFTs could also put a target on MoMA’s back for any hacker looking to get their hands on the museum’s NFTs, which by the nature of being in the museum’s possession would, theoretically, add to their value.

Lowry told the Journal that the museum has struggled to get visitor numbers back up to where they were pre-pandemic. Last year they topped 1.65 million visits, whereas in previous years they averaged 3 million. At the same time, museum staff saw their followers on sites like Instagram and Weibo shoot from 30 million before covid to 35 million now.

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The museum is keeping a few of the most well-known paintings like Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse, but it is parting with Renoir’s 1905 Still Life with Strawberries along with several Rodin statues.

Paley was a member of the MoMA board from 1937 until his death in 1990—long before there was even an inkling of blockchain technology. Bill Paley, the CBS founder’s son and the foundation’s vice president, told the Journal that they will defer to the museum on how it wants to spend most of the funds. A small portion of the auction proceeds will be used by the foundation for its other endeavors. Sotheby’s expects to put the items up for auction at various locations this fall, according to the Journal’s report.