Image shows a spread from On NFTs by Robert Alice on a bright blue background. The pull-out spread features 8-bit avatars of people's faces

What happened to NFTs?

Non-fungible tokens experienced a gold rush a couple of years ago, before mainstream interest waned and the market went into decline. Artist Robert Alice, who has edited an extensive new book on NFTs, talks to us about one of the most elusive, and divisive, web3 developments

If ‘word of the year’ lists are a barometer for gauging the moments that dominated culture and society, 2021 was the year of the non-fungible token. As a refresher, a non-fungible token is a unique identifier stored on blockchain – a decentralised digital ledger – that records ownership of an asset, which can be used to certify its authenticity and link re-sales to royalties. The idea of a ‘smart contract’ was first proposed by Nick Szabo in 1994, and by the early 2010s, the first assets were being registered on blockchain.

For years, NFTs were only being explored by a small community experimenting at the intersection of art and technology. However, they came to a crescendo in 2021 with the sale of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, which became the most expensive sale of an NFT at auction when it reached a price of $69,346,250 at Christie’s. “I think the media did a great job following the $ signs in clickbait news,” says Robert Alice, a pseudonymous artist and curator who has edited a new book, On NFTs, which puts the (far bigger) story down on paper. The book is available either as a collector’s edition or as a ‘hard code’ edition cocooned in a hand-made steel slipcase designed by Zak Group.

“As someone who is deeply committed to the space, the more interesting thing to look at is not the ‘peaks’ but the troughs,” says Alice. The market is in a widely publicised trough compared to the gold rush of 2021. Cryptocurrency crashes – including the collapse of leading crypto exchange FTX – and wider economic uncertainty have been attributed to the sharp decline. But in a sense it follows the usual pattern whenever a new technology bursts onto the scene: hype, crash, plateau. “As little as four years ago, there was no NFT space, and now in 2024 (even hugely down), the NFT space sees billions of dollars of art change hands each year. That is remarkable.”

Image shows the letter-based design on the cover of On NFTs by Robert Alice, which is shown jutting out from the semi-transparent hard slip-case design
All images from On NFTs by Robert Alice, published by Taschen