What Can N.F.T.s Do for Dead Artists?

Last month, during a stroll through the cavernous, glass-ceilinged rotunda of the British Museum, I wandered into the gift shop and saw something that made me do a double take. Amid the souvenir umbrellas and postcards was a sign suggesting “Visit our NFT store” and providing a QR code. Near the coat-check line, I encountered vitrines holding prints by Katsushika Hokusai, the revered nineteenth-century Japanese artist. One had a label noting that the 1833 woodblock print had been made into a non-fungible token, or N.F.T., edition and was purchased by a collector with the alias pixeldrip.eth in January of 2022, for just over four thousand dollars. “Scan to view our latest drops,” the label read. Never mind the fact that the majority of visitors would likely have no idea what all of these terms mean. What were digital replicas of an Edo-era artist doing in one of the most famous museums in the world, prominently displayed as if they were valuable art works in their own right?

The British Museum’s N.F.T. offerings were made in collaboration with a Paris-based company called laCollection, which was founded by Jean-Sébastien Beaucamps in early 2021. Beaucamps pitched the…

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