We call for the creation of a brand new discipline: The History of NFT Art. The History of NFT Art is a discipline structurally similar to the History of Art, under which it is to be subsumed. The History of NFT Art borrows its tools, frameworks and methods from the Historical study of art. Even though the object of this new discipline is well defined, it has not been given the serious treatment it deserves.
Below our readers will not find the outlines of a treatise or even a discussion of the reluctance of Historians to break their silence about NFTs. What we offer here is a succinct chronological outline of the events that led to the creation of the NFT market as it exists today. This outline will give the readers a measure of the work that needs to be accomplished.
Before going any further, to alleviate any doubt as to what the object of this article is, wouldn’t it be desirable to define, very quickly, what an NFT is?
What’s an NFT?
NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens, are Digital tokens linked with digital or physical assets. These tokens are designed according to specific standards (ERC721, ERC1155, to mention only two of them), using cryptographic methods. It is important to understand that an NFT is not the token alone, but the token linked with a digital or physical asset.
While most NFTs are issued via the Ethereum Blockchain, any blockchain can be used to issue NFTs. Case in point, The Tron and the EOS ecosystems have decided to make very large bets on the popularity of NFTs.
News outlets started actively covering NFTs about two or three years ago, giving the impression that NFTs are a relatively recent phenomenon. However, as we will see, the history of NFTs goes back to a time where Ethereum did not even exist.
History of NFTs
The very first NFTs came to us in 2011 via the bitDNS project. The idea was to link a cryptographic token, crafted on the Namecoin blockchain, to .bit domains.
Then came the infamous Coloured Coins (2012-2013), which represented a huge leap in bitcoin’s capabilities: the idea was to add metadata to Bitcoin transactions that corresponded to a state for a token, using the blockchain as a kind of registry for storing that information.
Many protocols implemented the idea of Colored Coins: OpenAssets, ChromaWay and Celu among others. However, the main Colored Coin projects are Mastercoin and Counterparty, which improved the base protocol and made it easier to create tokens and track them with the help of explorers.
Historically, the very first mention of Colored Coins came from a blog post published in early 2012 by Yoni Assia, entitled “Bitcoin 2.X (aka Colored Bitcoin) – initial specs”. On December 4th of 2012, Meri Rosenfeld published a paper entitled “Overview of Colored Coins.” In 2013, another paper covering the topic of colored coins was published by Yoni Assia, Vitalik Buterin, Lior Hakim and Meni Rosenfeld: “Colored Coins – Bitcoin X.”
Colored Coins were used to represent a multitude of assets and they have multiple use cases, including: real estate, coupons, company shares, access tokens, collectibles and more. Despite its flaws, the Colored Coins project opened the door for further experimentation and laid a lot of the groundwork for future NFT projects.
The very first piece of NFT Art was created in 2014 by Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash, live at the Seven on Seven conference at the New Museum in New York City. For the very first time, a unique work of art was linked to a non-fungible token via on-chain metadata. This first NFT was enabled by Namecoin, the first altcoin.
2014 was a pivotal year for the NFT sector. Robert Dermody, Adam Krellenstein and Evan Wagner founded Counterparty: an internet protocol doubled with a financial platform, built on top of the Bitcoin Network. Counterparty, for the very first time, allowed users to create assets and NFTs.
April of 2015 saw the release of “Spells of Genesis”: for the very first time, in-game assets were released, via Counterparty, as NFTs.
Counterparty proved to be a popular choice for issuing in-game items as NFTs. In August of 2016, the game Force of Will was released via Counterparty. That game was the fourth ranked card game by sales in North America; only Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic the Gathering had higher rankings.
October 2016 saw the rapid emergence of Meme’s on blockchains. Rare Pepes started making their appearance on the Counterparty platform as NFTs.
It did not take long before Rare Pepes started making their appearance on the Ethereum Blockchain. In March of 2017, a project named “Peperium” was announced. Peperium was a decentralized Meme marketplace and a trading card game that allowed users to create memes by leveraging Ethereum and IPFS. The Peperium project also had its own token, RARE, which was used for meme creation and listing fees.
In July of 2017, John Watkinson and Matt Hall launched Cryptopunks. The Cryptopunks projects consisted of 10 000 unique characters generated on the Ethereum blockchain. Watkinson and Hall let anyone with an Ethereum address claim a Cryptopunk for free. All 10 000 Cryptopunks were swiftly claimed and started being traded shortly after on secondary markets.
October 2017 is remembered as the month during which NFTs hit the mainstream. Cryptokitties was launched by a Vancouver-based company called Axiom Zen. They launched an Alpha version of their game at ETH Waterloo, the largest Ethereum Hackathon in the world. They won first place in the Hackathon and the game went viral afterwards. The game was picked up by news outlets such as CNN and Coindesk. Taking advantage of the game’s popularity, Axiom Zen created a company called Dapper Labs, which was awarded 15 million dollars in funding from investors such as a16z and Google Ventures.
In 2018 and 2019, the NFT ecosystem continued to grow. There are more than a hundred NFT projects either deployed or in development. NFT marketplaces, such as OpenSea, Rarible and SuperRare, are thriving.
Today, we are seeing a rapid expansion of NFT functionalities as the NFT market implements Decentralized Finance functionalities, such as staking, lending and borrowing.
Beeple’s sale of “The first 5000 days”, an NFT, via Christie’s Auction House, represents an inflection point for the NFT sector. This sale, very widely reported, marks the day when crypto-curious investors, crypto-tourists and Art Institutions took notice of NFTs: NFTs became a phenomenon that could simply not be ignored any longer.
The “Ethereum Gas Crisis”, during which transaction fees were so high that users started looking for suitable alternatives which they found in projects such as Near, Nervos, Cosmos and Solana, prompted teams to think about how they could improve the NFT experience for their users. One very popular solution was to move NFT projects on blockchains with lower fees and shorter block times, such as xDAI.
The creators of Cryptokitties, Axiom Zen, were painfully aware of the cost, for their users, of hosting Cryptokitties on the Ethereum blockchain. They made the decision to deploy the FLOW blockchain, in order to provide a better user experience. Enjin and Wax also emerged as popular options for NFT projects.