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All hail to the Planet of the Bored Apes

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Sasha Planting is a seasoned financial journalist and Associate Business Editor at Daily Maverick Business.

‘Gimmick' is a seemingly derogatory word, conjuring up an image of a gullible audience lured to a sub-par product by clanging bells and flashing lights. And it would be oh so easy to dismiss The Bored Ape Yacht Club as an inconsequential gimmick, a sign of the times, a flash-in-the-pan trend made popular by vacuous celebrities.

Why would anyone want to own an avatar that provides them with membership to “a swamp club for apes”? A community that has members-only benefits, such as access to The Bathroom, a collaborative graffiti board.

I shudder to think about what goes onto that board. But to dismiss the Bored Apes would be a mistake akin to dismissing much of the work of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, most famous for duct-taping a banana to a wall.

Or even Marcel Duchamp’s controversial urinal, The Fountain, which turned the art world on its head in 1917. In case you don’t live on Twitter, the Bored Ape Yacht Club started off as a collection of 10,000 Bored Ape NFTs (non-fungible tokens), each with different characteristics – varying fur types, facial expressions, clothing and accessories.

When the Bored Apes were released for sale at about $200 each last April, no one knew how big they would become. Within a day of the launch, all 10,000 images of the cartoon apes had sold out, raising $2-million for the four individuals from Yuga Labs who conceptualised and designed the project.

That the apes are NFTs means that every ape is a unique item with a single owner. This is their beauty. The key to (and value of) NFTs lies in the digital certificates that allow the authenticity of a work to be proven. Like cryptocurrencies, the sales of these digital assets are recorded in blockchains, or digital ledgers, that contain information about the ownership of the piece and the history of prices and transactions linked to them.

They are unique, indivisible, transferable, and, ideally, scarce.

Fast-forward a year and the trade in Bored Ape avatars over the last week hit $90-million, with 935 Apes trading hands with the highest price being $624,000.

This is partly thanks to the fact that celebrities have got in on the act. This month Madonna acquired an ape for 180 ETH (Ethereum), the equivalent of $571,206, off the OpenSea NFT market. Madonna’s ape is #4988 and features pink fur, a black leather cap, and a quirky T-shirt.

Hardly art, you would say. With the purchase, Madonna joins a community that includes the likes of Jimmy Fallon, Paris Hilton, Neymar, Snoop Dogg, Steve Aoki, Eminem and Marshmello.

It’s easy to dismiss this out of hand and you would be forgiven for wondering whether these owners have more money than sense. What guarantee is there that these apes will be just as valuable 20, 50, 200 years from now? Is this all just a temporary fad egged on by celebrities with too much money?

To answer these questions, one needs to consider the nature of NFTs. Art or not, an NFT offers proof of authenticity in a world where illegitimate copies look exactly like the real thing.

And at its heart, an NFT is an original piece of art or memorabilia and as such is worth paying for. What you chose to pay, and whether it will appreciate in value over time, is the bigger question.

There are thousands of NFTs created at the moment – every artist, musician, sports figure and influencer is trying to bank on the hype.

How many of them will remain valuable? What are the criteria for choosing? Does someone being famous today mean they’ll still be valuable in the future? I would say that as with real-world art, value is very much in the eye of the beholder.

It’s a well-worn example but take Van Gogh – in his time he was hardly revered, selling his paintings simply to put food on the table. Yet at Christie’s in New York in 1990, a painting of physician Paul Gachet, who cared for him in his last years, sold for $75-million.

Recently, a collector and cryptocurrency investor paid $69-million in an online auction also held by Christie’s, for a collage of JPEGs by the graphic illustrator Beeple, making history.

“This is going to be a billion-dollar piece someday,” the collector known as MetaKovan told Artnet.com. MetaKovan said the work was valuable not because it’s an NFT but because of the 5,000 days it took to produce, one illustration per day.

“Skill is transferable and technology becomes obsolete. The only thing you can’t hack is time, and this piece represents 13 years of time,” the collector said.

For me, the message is clear. Like cryptocurrencies, NFTs are here to stay. But whether the Bored Apes will be around in decades to come is anyone’s guess.

As is the case in the real world, buy only what you can afford and what has meaning or artistic merit for you personally. Do not, under any circumstances, buy it as an investment. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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