Secrets of the crypt

Owning art is no longer a physical affair, as the digital cryptograph paves the way for a new kind of philanthropic luxury

Art and Design 6 Apr 2021

Are cryptographs the future of art collecting?

Are cryptographs the future of art collecting?

It’s one thing to invent a new product, but a true pioneer creates demand for something you never even knew you wanted. Enter young pioneers Hugo McDonaugh, Edouard Bessire and Guillaume Gonnaud. When they launched Cryptograph last year, they did away with the concept of a physical product altogether.

Very simply, a cryptograph is a piece of art that can only exist and be owned digitally. It’s not altogether a far-fetched concept, given how few of us own an actual photograph nowadays. ‘Digital ownership is the new social signalling,’ says founder McDonaugh, ‘and it’s as significant as having a Picasso hanging on your wall.’

I first met McDonaugh with his co-founder Bessire in 2018. Though very young, both already had impressive backgrounds. McDonaugh’s was in wealth management and Bessire was a technology entrepreneur. Each has an MSc from the Imperial College Business School in innovation, entrepreneurship and management. They had grasped that well-heeled consumers were turning away from the kind of conspicuous consumption usually associated with luxury and looking for subtler and more individual ways to exhibit their wealth. The trio quickly defined what these consumers sought, created a demand for it and met it. ‘We increasingly live, meet and interact digitally, so collectors have been looking for ways to showcase and express themselves in this new world,’ says McDonaugh. ‘Today luxury is using your choice of products to demonstrate you care about your community and the planet.’

A cryptograph has it all. Owning a cryptograph indicates that you are future-facing, innovative, youthful and technically adept but beyond that it is a sure sign of your social conscience and philanthropic, ethical streak. This is because every cryptograph that is traded generates funds for charity forever.

Thanks to blockchain technology, a cryptograph is a digital, one-of-a-kind creation that cannot be forged. Part of the pioneering fun of owning one means you sometimes receive filmed evidence, along with your purchase, that the original artwork has been destroyed. Take Self Portrait of a Primate, a cryptograph by Hackatao, the well-known artistic duo from Milan. First, they created an original drawing of an orangutan’s skull on paper, in their distinctive tattoo and animation style. After they had transformed it into a gif, they filmed the drawing going up in flames. Actor Ashton Kutcher did the same with his cryptograph, The Eye of the Beholder. The burnings are there for all to see on Cryptograph’s website. They have an almost ritualistic quality to them, as if celebrating the end of an era of ‘stuff’ and heralding a new purer age of smart, digital possession. ‘We’re at tectonic shift because for the first time, digital content can be unique,’ enthuses McDonaugh. Kutcher is just one of many creative A-listers joining the revolution. Paris Hilton, Adrian Brody, Danny Huston, David Arquette, Kristen Wiig and Cary Elwes have all become cryptographers.

Cryptographs are perpetually raising funds. Each time a cryptograph is transacted, money is automatically donated to the curator’s cause. Explaining how this works involves talking about non-fungible tokens and more, yet the apparent complexity to many has only served to attract an enthusiastic following among the younger, tech-savvy generation, already at home with blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

‘The economic model of rewarding losing bidders is awesome,’ says multiple buyer Aditya Nagarsheth. ‘One thing which really compelled me to Cryptograph is that the team has combined the charity aspect with the creativity of celebrities – that’s a winning combination that over time will gain tremendous popularity.’

Another buyer, Bill Wright, bought a cryptograph by Tom Morello, the musician, actor and political activist of Rage Against the Machine. It’s a simple drawing of a hippo but Wright says it feels ‘so cool to own something unique, on such a bleeding edge digital media form and authentication protocol’. He likens the transaction to ‘the modern-day version of buying one of John Lennon’s sketches’.

Cryptograph owners display the same spirit of perpetual altruism as Cryptograph itself.  Owning a cryptograph does not mean hiding it away on your phone purely for your own enjoyment. To a cryptograph owner, the notion of a valuable painting displayed privately behind secure walls would seem positively quaint and antique. Instead, your cryptograph is stored on IPFS (InterPlanetary File System) for all to access and many owners are even happy to display their names. In a nutshell, only you own it, but anyone can see it. ‘Instead of creating value around restricting access to an asset, this is the equivalent of having your name on a plaque underneath the Mona Lisa,’ says McDonaugh. ‘It’s far more powerful and open.’ Meanwhile, the Cryptograph app is nearly ready. It will allow you to store
your collection on your electronic devices, too.

While Cryptograph may not exactly represent one of life’s fundamental needs, particularly given the way the pandemic has made us all question what those are, its appeal to demanding and socially conscious consumers is beyond doubt. How long before we’re visiting Cryptograph’s first virtual art museum?