NFT Art Collectors Are Playing a Risky Game—And Winning

Behind the high white walls of a nondescript single-story building in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, past the velvet ropes and ticket-checkers, and through a hallway filled with disorienting billows of white smoke lies Aku World, Aku, an African-American young astronaut from another universe. One room was covered in moving projections depicting this animated extraterrestrial universe. You could see the videos from the inside of a huge space helmet at its center. In other rooms: traditional art from the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and young artists Jade Yasmeen and Floyd Strickland; a “merch” room with virtual 3D displays of branded backpacks and hoodies; and a futuristic sanctum with a massive, ovoid version of a TSA body scanner, used for 4D body-mapping. Visitors could develop and “mint” their own personalized avatars for the Aku World metaverse. An endless line of patrons gathered in the corridor.
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Art Basel Miami’s balmy Thursday evening was a perfect opportunity to meet one of them. Cooper Turley. Turley wore designer shoes, a black turtleneck, and a diamond necklace. He towered above his Aku fan friends in line. This was a group of young, diverse people who managed to get tickets for the special pop-up. “I’ve been following the story for six months at this point,” Turley says proudly.

Turley was 26 years old and more than an Aku enthusiast. Turley was an investor in the project. He is also a NFT collector. Turley is also known on Twitter for posting upbeat thoughts about the future of web3. Originally an avid Pokemon collector—the type of teen who spent hours searching out rare cards on eBay—Turley turned a college music business degree into a career as an angel investor and general crypto expert after becoming intrigued by the concept of so-called “smart” contracts for music, which could more effectively apportion out revenue to the many stakeholders involved in a track.

He now has between 400 and 500 NFTs. These include an original Crypto Kitty, his first NFT purchase, to a unique one-of-one. FvckrenderHe purchased the bitcoin for 10ETH, which is currently about $44 Million. “If I were trying to get [my collection]What is the current value of your property? It would be, like, a couple million dollars,” he says, doing some quick mental math.

NFT Art Collecting:

Just like there are famous physical world art collectors—Peggy Guggenheim, J. Paul Getty, the Broads—Turley has joined the ranks of high-end NFT art collectors, as non-fungible tokens became the talk of the crypto and art worlds this year. OpenSea’s NFT auction platform has sold more than $10 Billion since its launch in 2017. It was the hyped-up $69 million price tag for one Beeple art piece that sparked the most excitement last spring.An NFT is open to all types of uses, but digital art has been the primary and most obvious. This could also refer to a moving picture. Or an audio-visual clip. Or a “profile picture project” (PFP) like CryptoPunks or Bored Ape Yacht Club, drawings that are variations on a theme within a particular universe. Aku World began as an assortment of Aku NFTs. A physical sculpture that has an NFT ownership certificate. More and more, it also can mean tokens that provide access to exclusive events or content—also a perk, in this instance, of Aku NFT ownership.

Turley considers his role as a collector, investor, and advisor in the space a profession and perhaps a calling. Turley’s professional and social lives are closely intertwined. In Miami, his days were a mix of attending events like Aku World and carrying on into near-dawn club adventures with fellow collectors and artists he’s befriended. “There’s one part of my collecting that’s all about patronage,” he says. “It’s my friends getting involved in the space, so I am buying their work to simply say thank you for believing in this, thank you for taking a chance and putting your art into this ecosystem.”

The second part of the equation is speculation. “There’s a science to knowing which entities are going to go up and being able to flip those,” he says. After all, he’s been able to build a multimillion dollar collection off his early crypto investments and willingness to play that game.

Value of community

Turley’s approach—recognizing both the power of patronage and the potential of speculation—is one echoed by most collectors in these early, volatile days of the NFT market. Jake Rogers (38), also discovered his niche as both a collector, and speculator. Crypto—and NFT art collecting—changed his life; after going through a divorce and diving into crypto self-education via the audio hangout app Clubhouse during the pandemic, Rogers left his role as the program director of a homeless shelter in Atlanta. He’s now a full-time NFT investor based in Miami. (He’s also building out a local cafe for “cannabis, coffee, crypto and tacos,” he says happily.) But you wouldn’t know any of this from his unassuming appearance; he shows up at a low-key pool party on a residential street in downtown Miami in a faded tank top, shorts, and a Patagonia baseball cap covering his grey hair, swigging from a bottle of electric yellow Gatorade.

Rogers will be greeting the Queens-based musician and general buzz man ArtzRaymond Allende, real name Raymond Allende is the founder of Reject Dreams artist collective. Rogers invested in some of Artz’s audio-visual works (and NFTs), and they’re friends via Clubhouse. Rogers is a boyish energy as he settles on the couch next to a dusty table and explains his NFT investing philosophy. Rogers is working on 487 projects when we speak, but he wants to reach 500 before the weekend ends, having a spending limit of approximately $200,000.

He had been dabbling in crypto since 2017, but made his first NFT purchase in spring 2020, with a reasonably-priced piece from “some brothers in Russia,” he remembers, who he discovered on Clubhouse. “I got in for the community. And then—” he pauses. After he had collected about 100 works he loved, including four Bored Apes, three of which he sold for a healthy profit, “then I got in for the money.”

Now he’s using what he calls “house money,” re-investing his wins. “The reality is, it’s insider trading,” he says wryly. With a purpose: He supports early-stage artists that need money to survive. That positive feedback loop, and the sense that he’s making a difference in someone’s life, “is like a drug.” “I came from the world of understanding my privilege and helping people that have nothing,” he says. He has a system now for deciding what’s a worthy project, based on the rarity of the pieces, his trust in the people behind the project, and whether it’s a safe bet or a risky one.

Rogers knows it might look like he’s having a midlife crisis right now. But he says he’s never felt a stronger sense of purpose: to invest in the future, and be a part of supporting the paths of artists he believes in—like Artz—who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance. He waves goodbye and takes a quick photo with Artz before heading out for the next exhibition.

“I didn’t even know what the guy looked like until a few weeks ago,” Artz says after Rogers leaves. Artz has been able to raise his profile thanks to Rogers’ early support. Artz and Busta Rhymes would be performing later on in the weekend.

Is NFT art “real art”?

For outsiders, NFT’s art world may seem like a joke or just a bunch high-rollers playing computer games. For those inside it, it is a game—but one with real stakes. Nowhere was that more clear than at the NFTNow x Christie’s party in downtown Miami, hosted in a corporate venue transformed into an NFT art gallery and party spot. Digital works from top-selling artists such as Chad Knight, Fvckrender and Dave Krugman appeared on the darkened walls. Most people were more interested in the work than the open bar.

Art Basel Miami Beach
Cindy Ord/Getty Images.Art Basel Miami 2021: Guests see a NFT piece of art by Mario Klingemann, a German artist.

Turley was often seen with bigwigs such as Kamiar Maleki (director of Volta Art Fairs) and Colborn Bell (the tall, bearded head of Colborn Bell). Museum of Crypto ArtArtists and celebrities such as Timbaland, Fewocious and Jared Leto. The Christie’s co-sign gave this new generation an air of officiality. But at the main Art Basel fair in a cavernous event space on Miami Beach, Turley felt out of place; he admits he’s not a traditional art connoisseur. Most of the booths were hosted by galleries—and NFT artists tend to bypass gallery representation. Tezos hosted a booth that was popular, but 5,000 NFTs were issued there during the week.

“I felt a little bit of a disconnect,” Turley says. “All the art on display was physically appealing, and it looked fantastic,” but he didn’t feel the sense of connection that he could find with NFTs. “One of the things that I like the most about NFTs is that you are not bidding on the art itself, you’re bidding on a relationship with the creator. This is possible because we are at an early stage. The reason that a lot of people are spending so much money on NFTs is because they really want to get connected to that artist on a personal level,” he says. Turley has aided creators and artists in their NFT entry.

It’s coming!

In an unregulated, emerging market, there are not always wins. Collectors spoke blithely about getting “rugged” on certain NFT investments, about how easy it is for hackers to entice potential investors into fake projects, into scams that result in an empty crypto wallet before they can back out of the exchange. But, most of the time, losing is just a spark for the desire to do it again. Risk is the norm.

Turley joined artist at Aku World back in the day. Isabella AddisonBrett Shear is a young collector. Shear is a music NFT collector. After Turley minted his new Aku avatar, the trio—already tired after a few days of the Miami party circuit—grabbed dinner at a low-key gyro restaurant a few blocks away, then headed to an event hosted by digital music collective Poolsuite. Addison is one of the featured artists. AssistanceThese collectors have helped her rise to stardom. She was out with the collector she goes by, Saturday night. SeedphraseWho is it? recently estimated his NFT collection’s value at About $12 million. Playboy hosted a party with Proof of Party. The walls were lit by moving projections of models. CharliXCX, a pop star, was at the booth as a deejay. In the morning, Addison would awaken to paint a Bentley in preparation for an auction. She was moving into a new apartment in L.A. soon, with the money she’s made selling her art.

The collectors all warned of an upcoming “crypto winter” of increased volatility, for which they’re preparing by diversifying their investments into things like metaverse propertiesDAOs, which are crypto-focused DAOs (decentralized autonomous organisations that invest collectively) and DAOs with crypto-orientation. The future looks bright for Addison and other artists who have already seen the benefits of patronage.


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