In brief

  • Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss appeared at today’s Ethereal Summit to discuss their NFT success with Nifty Gateway.
  • The Winklevoss Twins are the co-founders of the Gemini cryptocurrency exchange, which acquired Nifty Gateway in 2019.

Much like in the early days of Bitcoin, convincing people of the potential and value of digital artwork and collectibles represented as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) was an uphill battle before the recent boom, say Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss.

The Bitcoin billionaires and co-founders of cryptocurrency exchange Gemini saw the potential before the market exploded these past few months, with the wider NFT market generating more than $1.5 billion in total transaction volume in Q1 2021. Gemini acquired NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway in November 2019, and the platform has been one of the drivers of that NFT surge.

In a conversation with Forbes associate editor Michael del Castillo this morning as part of Decrypt's Ethereal Summit, the Winklevoss twins discussed the early days of building Nifty Gateway. Tyler said that the acquisition “feels like a decade” ago in the fast-moving NFT space, and that early on, they mostly had to reach out to artists and creators to get them on the platform.

'Air traffic control' for NFTs

“Content is king,” said Tyler of their ethos, but he estimates that approximately three out of every 10 creators they contacted before the NFT boom were actually interested in the space. As Nifty Gateway’s successes built up, “people started knocking down our doors,” he explained.

With artists like Beeple, The Weeknd, and even Mick Jagger recently selling NFTs on Nifty Gateway as part of a constant flood of new content drops, “We’re just playing aircraft traffic control and curating the inbounds,” said Tyler. According to the pair, Nifty Gateway has now seen more than $300 million in trading volume to date, with the highest secondary market sale topping $6 million for a single NFT.

Cameron Winklevoss relayed how the pair first got into NFTs—which are like a deed of ownership for any digital item—about two years ago, ahead of the Nifty Gateway acquisition.

“We went to a digital art fair, and Tyler bought a CryptoPunk using the Nifty Gateway software back then,” said Cameron. “The energy and electricity really reminded us of Bitcoin in 2012 and 2013 when we found it. It was like this secret that was hiding in plain sight, and we were just like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to be building on this frontier.’”

“With Nifty Gateway, we have to build this bridge into the future of art,” he added. “Art has to move into this medium and be represented via tokens on blockchain. It just became very, very obvious.”

Mona Lisa Overdrive

As prominent vanguards of the rise of NFTs, the Winklevoss Twins have seen firsthand some of the confusion around and even resistance to the idea of tokenized digital artwork. They relayed the story of the aforementioned Beeple, who spent more than a decade releasing his digital art for free online before the NFT format enabled him to authenticate and sell pieces that could be verified on the blockchain (he went on to sell an NFT for $69.3 million via Christie’s auction). But as with Bitcoin and finance, the idea of NFTs pushes against long-held ideas and assumptions about how things are “supposed” to work.

“Anyone can take the photo of a Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but that’s not the original. The NFT authenticates and gives provenance to this digital piece of art,” said Tyler. “Prior to the NFT representation, digital art—you couldn’t really authenticate it, or say it was the original or what the artist intended. It makes the digital canvas viable, and that’s really challenging for people to wrap their head around. In the early days, even when we were talking to people in the art world, they simply didn’t get it. There’s this whole complex built around physical art.”

In Tyler’s view, releasing digital art tokenized on a blockchain is just the latest evolution of where original artwork can be found, sold, and appreciated. “Art has been in galleries, it’s been in nature, it’s been on street corners, and now it’s moving to the blockchain,” he said. “It’s the new canvas, and Nifty Gateway is a gallery of the internet.”

“I like to joke that Times Square is the biggest NFT gallery in the world,” Cameron interjected. “It just doesn’t know it yet. One day, we’ll do a takeover.”