Fancy your own Leonardo masterpiece for £200,000? Or a Raphael for the same sort of price? You can have one – they’re on sale now at a London gallery. Hardly small change, but compared to the $450m sale price of Salvator Mundi they look like bargains.

Of course, there’s a catch: the works are digital versions of the original paintings, on sale as NFTs – non-fungible tokens.

The Unit London gallery, in collaboration with four Italian museums, has begun exhibiting six digitised paintings from some of the most celebrated Italian painters in art history.

Each masterpiece – Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch; Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician, and his La Scapigliata; a version of Francesco Hayez’s Il Bacio; Caravaggio’s Canestra di frutta and Modigliani’s Head of the Young Lady – has been produced as a digital limited edition of nine. The artworks, displayed on screens, are bordered by the exact replicas of the original frames, each one handcrafted in Tuscany.

Italian firm Cinello used patented technology to create the encrypted digital art works, known as DAWs. They will be sold as NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain priced from €100,000 for the Hayez to €250,000 for the Caravaggio and the Leonardo portrait.

There’s been a gold rush around NFT artworks, culminating last year in the sale of Beeple’s Everydays collage for an eye-watering $69m. Part of the appeal of trading in NFTs of new artwork lies in their uniqueness. Only the NFT owner has access to the real image; everything else is just screen shots and copies.

In economics, a fungible asset is one whose individual units are interchangeable. A £1 coin, or one bitcoin, then, is a fungible asset: it doesn’t matter which specific pound coin or bitcoin you own, they have the same value.

Non-fungible tokens, NFTs, by contrast, are unique. They can be pieces of digital art, videos, tickets to an event, access to play-to-earn games or other digital assets.

When someone buys an NFT, they are purchasing a token proving ownership. It’s a bit like buying an original painting, or at least exclusive access to one.

When an NFT artwork is assigned to a unit of data on the Ethereum blockchain, the data and the image attached to it will be the only one in existence and verifiable, and as such can be sold as a unique item.

But digitised Raphaels and Leonardos will always play second fiddle to the precious originals in the great galleries around the world, which begs the question; what’s the point of them?

Joe Kennedy, director of the Unit London gallery, says such NFT sales could be “game changing” for museum’s used to borrowing art. By buying DAWs, they do away with risky and environmentally damaging long-haul shipping and allow overseas audiences an opportunity to experience great art.

Alberto Rocca, director of the art gallery Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, in Milan, which has the original version of Caravaggio’s Canestra di frutta, agrees.

“I think of digital technology as a form of art that helps museums like ours to raise awareness of cultural heritage,” he says.

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He says that “collectors can buy copies, which in fact, are themselves examples of contemporary creativity and create income that helps preserve the original artworks and collections”.

Such private purchases would contradict the notion DAWs allow the masses better access to art. One art historian told i she thought “there is a sense that NFT art works are becoming rich people’s playthings”.

The extra revenue the Unit London sale will raise for four important Italian institutions can’t be argued with, though.

Another art historian, Martin Kemp, an emeritus professor at Oxford and leading Leonardo expert, says of NFTs: “A repro is a repro, even if we can see more than we can in the original. The repo captures the surface, not the optical effects of layers of priming, underpainting, glazes and scumbles, particularly under varied lighting conditions.”

He notes that digital reproductions allow art to be examined in a new level of detail but says this can bring its own drawbacks.

“If you have these high-resolution, while providing new insights, you can end up seeing things that even the artist did not know were there,” he says. “It’s already produced some ludicrous conspiracies and theories.”

There’s something unusual, too, about viewing paintings on a screen. At first glance, in the gloom of the Mayfair gallery, their temporary home, the works could be any important pieces hanging in a museum.

Look directly at Il Bacio (The Kiss), and the pale blue silk of the woman’s dress has an electric sheen, despite the low lighting in the room.

This is a product of Hayez’s dazzling brushwork, not the medium – a high-resolution digital screen. The slight sense of unreality is exacerbated, however, by the adjacent, digitised Caravaggio still life, which in comparison is shockingly matt.

For good or ill, these DAWs are impervious to the light conditions around them.

At the start of the digital art revolution some claimed digitised work could prove a cold, detached experience, creating distance between artist and audience.

But if the gallery officials behind the Unit London sale are right, digitalisation might not only open up possibilities for new artists but allow the public better access to great art from the past – assuming you believe DAWs of Leonardo are better than nothing.



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