The first NFT was by an artist named Kevin McCoy, all the way back in 2014: a pulsating octagon animation named Quantum. It would be years before they entered the public consciousness.
That movement began with Rare Pepes, back in 2016. It was the first time a small base of users got used to spending money for .jpgs, even if it wasn't mainstream then.
After that came the Cryptopunks: the first NFT series in this history that has name recognition and holds value in the millions today. At the time of minting, they were free.
The first NFTs to make the news and kick off the modern era were Cryptokitties. They were invented at an Ethereum hackathon, in Toronto, Canada. They were free; their creators gave them away to hackathon participants.
For a long time the market was very sleepy. Other notable projects, like EtherRocks, were released into the market and did nothing; even cryptokitties slumped. (They have appreciated a lot since then.)
Until September of last year, you could say the market was a backwater. There were maybe only 100,000 accounts holding NFTs total.
The real breakthrough that transformed everything came from Beeple, also known by his real name, Mike Winkelmann. He started learning about NFTs and September, though he’d been doing an art piece a day since long before.
In February his corpus of works, made up of 1 artwork a day created for over 10 years starting in 2007, sold for 69 million.
After Beeple the floodgates opened. Artists started pouring in. Many of the biggest artists today date from this period, after Beeple’s record-breaking sale.
This is important because many of the people, when imagining the history of NFTs, will just imagine a line gradually and evenly increasing. Reality wasn’t like that. NFTs can be divided into before and after Beeple.
This also means that the experience of many very important people in the NFT space has been really short - just 8 months, from February 2021 to October 2021.
Many celebrities became involved, like Paris Hilton.
From February 2021 to now, the basic pattern was established.
A handful of artists achieved red-hot breakout status: Beeple, Ghxsts, fvckrender (links here). A string of high profile projects also hit it big.
Some NFT's seem to come from the world of street art, but some of them seem to sit more squarely within fine art.
Example: Fidenzas, shown below, which regularly sell in the millions now.
But the biggest breakthrough project, now regularly flaunted by celebrities, is the Bored Ape Yacht Club.
The Bored Ape Yacht Club has been so successful that it holds the promise to disrupt venture capital. If that level of funding can be raised so easily and quickly, all kinds of business ventures become more possible
Today the main marketplace is OpenSea, on Ethereum. It’s where the largest and most well known artists go to sell their wares. Their are now accounts which regularly track the largest transactions, which move in the millions hourly.
NFTs are becoming a multi chain phenomenon. Their growth has been grass roots. To paraphrase the financial analyst Matt Levine in his 'Money Stuff' newsletter, “apes and penguins are just more fun than crypto tokens.”
Their purpose has also expanded beyond their original goals. They are now used to show membership in a group.
The ways to make NFTs have also been standardized. They are typically called ERC20 tokens on Ethereum. It becomes easier to make them every day. And NFT histories (including this one) are multiplying.
There are clouds on the horizon - example: the prohibitive expense of minting - but there is hope that these can be reduced through code updates.
Beyond that, having achieved this level of cultural cachet already, it's safe to say that NFT's will be important for years to come.