Digital Art: A New Way to Collect Contemporary Art

At s[edition], leading contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst create original limited editions which only the buyer can access. Tim Willis reports

Some years ago, it was revealed that Bill Gates had installed wall screens in his palatial Seattle home on which to download and display ultra-high-definition digital photographs of the world’s greatest paintings. One couldn’t help but smirk.

No doubt there was some novelty value. Imagine seeing, say, da Vinci’s Last Supper one minute, looking away and returning one’s gaze to behold Picasso’s Guernica.

Nonetheless, these images could not be classed as ‘art’ any more than could an Athena reproduction of Dali’s Time (a staple of bedroom walls when I was a teenager).

The trouble was, not only were these images unable to convey the texture of the originals, but the existence of the solid artefacts underlined their ephemeral and unsatisfactory nature.

And, unlike artist’s prints, they had neither intrinsic exclusivity nor the imprimatur of their creators. Hack into Bill’s laptop and you could create a clone of exactly the same value. Namely, zero.

That didn’t mean the art world had met its match in digital technology. Artists could, and did, produce limited-edition and fully-certified CDs and DVDs of ‘video’ art that sold for hundreds of thousands. But this was hardly in the spirit of the new virtual world, where content is cheap if not free, and available to anyone with an internet connection.

So how could the art world adapt to the computer age, to generate both work and, equally importantly, money? It took Harry Blain, one of Britain’s leading dealers, to figure it out. Images had to be created exclusively for the web, sold in large editions to keep prices low and traded through one and the same site to guarantee authenticity.

Thus was born s[edition], co-founded with Robert Norton, AOL’s former head of e-commerce for Europe and ex-CEO of Saatchi Online. The roster of artists they have assembled suggests it is an idea whose time has come.

This week, Yoko Ono was the latest to join such ‘bankers’ as Damien Hirst, Mat Collishaw, Michael Craig-Martin, Bill Viola and the Noble and Webster duo, all of whom have created works (ranging in price from £7.50 to £500) that can be downloaded or streamed on to your phone, laptop, Gates-style wall screen, or TV.

Michael Craig-Martin_Lighthouse
©Michael Craig-Martin, courtesy of
Tracey Emin_I Promise to Love You
©Tracey Emin, courtesy of

So far, so cool. But what’s to stop the average man on the superhighway from Googling a s[edition] image and looking at it?

Norton explains: “Each limited edition has a Certificate of Authenticity signed by the artist and a secure record to verify the artwork is authentic. Once an artwork is purchased, it lives in high quality in the collector’s vault. Only the collector can access his or her private vault to download the work, for personal use, on to any device he or she owns or controls.

“Every purchased work is tracked using digital watermarking technology. Each can be identified, verified and traced to its owner. Video files are not available for download except as stills, and have to be viewed with an app such as the iPad app or streamed from a connected device.

“s[edition] will be adding new apps to support offline viewing in the coming year. [We aim] to build a rewarding culture of responsible collecting.”

At the moment, s[edition] says it’s about being “fun and being interesting”. But that could soon change: s[edition] plans to introduce an open marketplace to enable collectors to buy and sell works directly after edition runs have been sold out. This service is in development, and will be available in the months to come.

Blain says: “Some collectors will never sell; others will trade continually. s[edition] will enable collectors to continue building their collections, and at a later stage will give them the option to sell, should they wish.

“In the physical world, many collectors place a premium on early editions. With s[edition], collectors of early editions can

buy the work at the starting offer price. The cost of the work may change as the supply of available editions decreases.”

Which is nice for Blain and Norton. But what’s in it for the artists? As usual, Our Trace is the most articulate: “I like the idea of original pieces of art going to people directly for a low price,” she says.

“When you are an artist and you get to a certain level, it means that you have forced yourself out of the market for a lot of people; this makes pure art available. Also, it is a new medium, which I think is exciting.

“If you were to buy a neon [by me], well, most people couldn’t, so this way they can actually have a neon in their room, in their living room, at a party, for example, on their screen, and it is reasonably inexpensive.

So will it catch on? I don’t see why not. Irrespective of their aesthetic or monetary value, limited edition and one-off physical works by these artists are high-status items. So this service can not only provide us mere mortals with a direct connection to some of the most creative souls on the planet, but allow us to score points over our acquaintances. Once we’ve done that, we can switch over and watch Homeland.

Didn’t think of that, now did you, Bill?

Video: The s[edition] artists talk about their work