Why you should know about the new app that threatens to disrupt the conventional art market but offers opportunities to digital and new media artists and a new generation of art buyers who have their finger on the sideswipe.

Peter Traynor  | Ed. Erin Floyd  | 12 May 2021

Basquiat Untitled Courtesy of Sotheby's - Agora Digital Art
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled could fetch up to US$45 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong ©Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Fair Warning is not an app for the faint-hearted. It was established in 2020 by Loïc Gouzer, former head of contemporary art at Christie’s and the man responsible for the sale of the most expensive artwork in history, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, for $450.3 million. Fair Warning is a members’ only platform for the sale of artwork. To qualify you need to demonstrate both the funds and the intention to buy some of the world’s most expensive art. Its first sale was Steven Shearer’s 2018 portrait Synthist for a mere $437,000. This was followed by auctions of works by artists like Steven Parrino for $977,500 and David Hammons for $1.3 million and then, a scoop, Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $10.8 million.

Fair Warning, Private Auction App launch (2021) © Courtesy of Loic Gouzer.

It would seem then that the app is starting to disrupt the established market beyond its founder’s expectations. It’s worth remembering though that another 1982 work by Basquiat, his untitled skull painting, sold for a hefty $110.5 million in 2017 in a live auction at Sotheby’s, ten times that of the sale on Fair Warning. 

So, the app is selling high-cost artworks, but not the real big potatoes yet by any means. That the app has upset some big players, including Larry Gagosian, a long-time collaborator with Gouzer through his global portfolio of Gagosian galleries, should also raise a question mark.   

The future then is by no means assured for Fair Warning – and one of the first online art auction platforms – Paddle8, offers a cautionary tale. Launched in 2011 by an auctioneer, a banker and a Harvard Business School graduate, Paddle8 got off to a good start selling artworks up to $100, 000. A long and complicated series of takeovers, mergers and lawsuits however led in 2020 to the platform filing for bankruptcy, with creditors including a long list of charities, headed by among others, JayZ and Justin Bieber. 

At the same time, the app offers huge opportunities for both producers of digital art and consumers. Another potential question-mark hanging over the app relates to the nature of the art market itself. Are the super-rich who buy these works happily just to push a few buttons to obtain their artwork? Is the art auction not like a day at the races or the casino – a place to see and be seen

Maybe, but then maybe not. Yusaku Maezawa, the Chinese-born billionaire, bid by phone from his home in Japan when he bought Basquiat’s afore-mentioned skull painting in just ten minutes. As soon as he bought it he announced it on Instagram – as he said: “When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art, I want to share that experience with as many people as possible”. 

Beeple, Everydays: The First 5000 Day  (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

Likewise, whilst the app recently sold its first NFT, or non-fungible token, by the artist Urs Fischer, for $97,700, in a somewhat ironic development, Gouzer’s old employers Christie’s also sold their first NFT and fully digital piece of art. Everydays: The First 5000 Days, created by prominent digital artist Mike “Beeple” Winkelmann, sold for $69.3 million in March 2021. 

Urs Fischer’s @chaosursfischer CHAOS #1 Human, editions of 501 digital sculptures @Courtesy of the artist

It is early days yet though and Maezawa’s choice of forums points to another potential strength of Fair Warning’s model – he was in his early forties when he bought that painting – the wealthy are getting younger, and an app that allows them to buy art and then with a few strokes of a thumb share it with the world will have huge appeal to the younger market. And the move into the cryptocurrency and NFT spheres can only add to this appeal in the long term, and provide opportunities for digital and new media artists to reach new markets. With NFTs opening the doors in many respects this could also offer opportunities for female digital artists. 

Both NFTs and cryptocurrencies have their own sources of instability and anxiety though, booms and busts and all sorts of unpredictability as proven by the recent shenanigans between Bitcoin and Tesla. In this respect, Fair Warning feels like a gamble that might pay off big time, but if you want to get involved as anything but a distant spectator, you will need deep pockets and a strong stomach, as it could be a bumpy ride. You have been warned. 

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