Antiques find new appeal with young, tech-savvy collectors thanks to NFTs

The fusty world of antiques is getting a youthful breath of fresh air, thanks to non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
PHOTO: Felix Wong

The fusty world of antiques is getting a youthful breath of fresh air, thanks to non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

A growing number of art galleries and dealers are using the blockchain to mint NFTs for ancient artefacts, ushering in a group of younger, tech-savvy clients.

Last May, Hong Kong-based Wui Po Kok Antique launched a two-part sale of 60 tokens that are linked to two legendary weapons from the Chinese Qing and Han dynasties.

One batch of 30 NFTs is linked to a bronze, ceremonial sword from the Qing dynasty (1636 to 1912) with gold decorations inspired by the “green dragon crescent blade”, a weapon wielded by the legendary warrior Guan Yu during the late Eastern Han dynasty of China (AD25 to 200).

While the NFTs do not give their holder a part-ownership of the actual weapons, they confer the right to bid for them within one year of the launch. This effectively caps the demand for the physical weapon at 30 bidders.

“Among all the different types of antiques, we have decided to start with minting NFTs backed by antique Chinese weapons because weapons share a common link with the digital assets in the world of blockchain games,” said Warren Cheng, founder of Wui Po Kok Antique.

He declined to disclose the selling prices of the swords, but said as a point of reference similar antique weapons have been known to fetch up to HK$1 million (S$173,320) at public auction.

The NFT also confers the right to view the swords, which are being stored in a safe belonging to the gallery.

“We normally don’t open the weapons to public viewing, so this is an exclusive right granted only to the NFT holders,” said Cheng.

The price of the NFTs starts at half an ether, or about US$1,240 (S$1,670) based on the cryptocurrency’s price on Wednesday afternoon. But that rises by a five per cent increment each time a new token in the batch changes hands.

This inflationary pressure could trigger a sense of FOMO, or “fear of missing out”, that fuels demand, Cheng admitted.

“While the blockchain has a lot of value in helping to prove the authentification of an artwork, an NFT has brought us a new group of younger buyers, who are in their 20s and who have become interested in the history associated with antiques,” said Cheng.

Millennials have been driving big-ticket art and antique sales among high-net-worth individuals, according to a UBS survey of 500 people with investible assets of at least US$1 million in five markets including Hong Kong, the UK and the US.

Total sales in the global art market reached US$50.1 billion in 2020, down 22 per cent from 2019, according to a review published by UBS and Art Basel.

As Covid-19 forced events to be cancelled and lockdowns hit sales at art galleries, dealers turned to new technologies to generate interest among potential buyers who spend more time online.

Imperial Arts, which has a gallery in Beijing, auctioned off NFTs tied to five personal belongings of Napoleon Bornaparte in December, each conferring direct ownership of the physical objects.

They included a cane made of whalebone which the French emperor used to point at maps, and a golden snuffbox he owned. They were auctioned on NFT platform OpenSea, according to Olivier Marian, founder of the Swiss start-up Arteia, whose blockchain solutions helped mint the Napoleon NFTs.

“Younger people, newly enriched by cryptocurrencies, have the tokens to use as they like to spend them on collectibles. Our technology helps Imperial Arts connect with this group of people,” said Marian.

Still, there are also people willing to bid for NFTs that are completely decoupled from the physical objects.

A group of four vintage-watch lovers will drop their first batch of NFTs in the metaverse in February featuring timepieces made by brands such as Rolex.

The project, called New Old Stock, will mint tokens featuring a unique vintage watch design, with variations embedded in parts such as the watch index, dials or straps, said Quinton Ng, adviser to the project and owner of a vintage-watch shop in Hong Kong.

“The metaverse will experience rapid growth in the coming years. We aim to recreate the vintage-watch collecting community in the metaverse,” he said.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.