How much would you pay for nothing?
For one private European art collector, it is $1.2m. That’s the amount paid at a recent Sotheby’s auction in Paris for a receipt written by the French artist Yves Klein to prove the ownership of one of his “invisible art” pieces – now being billed by collectors as a precursor to NFTs.
Klein, a key figure in the French new realism movement founded in the 1960s, was a pioneer in performance art. In 1958, he launched The Void, an exhibition in which he placed a cabinet in an empty room. It was a success, with thousands of visitors showing up to the mostly vacant Parisian gallery.
Soon after, Klein decided to offer collectors the opportunity to buy invisible “zones” in exchange for gold bullion. Each purchase of one of Klein’s Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility came with a receipt, which he urged buyers to burn.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the burning was part of a ritual in which Klein wanted collectors to assert themselves as “definitive owners” of their “zones”. Klein would then dump half the gold payment into the Seine River and burn the receipts among witnesses.
One of the collectors, Jacques Kugel, refused to burn his receipt. It has become a valued piece of art in its own right, displayed at various cultural institutions such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Hayward Gallery in London.
Loïc Malle, a former gallery owner, eventually bought the receipt and auctioned it off along with other items from his private collection.
The receipt measures less than 8in wide and is designed to mimic a bank check. It features Klein’s signature on the bottom right and is dated 7 December 1959.
A receipt to Jacques Kugel by Yves Klein for five grams of gold in exchange for Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility Serie n°1, Zone n°02. Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images
“Some have likened the transfer of a zone of sensitivity and the invention of receipts as an ancestor of the NFT, which itself allows the exchange of immaterial works,” Sotheby’s wrote in its auction catalog.
“The Zones were the apotheosis of Klein’s lifelong quest to create an artwork which was ‘a direct and immediate perception – assimilation without any effect, any trick, or any deception’. In other words, he was aiming to directly transmit the power of painting – its sensibility – without depending on the painting-artifact to act as a medium,” it added.
“Klein considered for a long time how exactly these Zones … should be sold. Eventually, he settled on a system which is the spiritual precursor for the model we are seeing used for the sale of digital art via NFT: he created a separate artifact for the financial aspect of the artwork. This was the humble, but brilliant, receipt.”
For the first time ever, Sotheby’s accepted cryptocurrency payments for the artwork. According to Smithsonian, the sale surpassed the initial estimated range of $300,000 to $500,000 and instead was settled on $1.2m after fees.
The auction house said the individual who bought the receipt was a “private European collector” and that it remains “too early to say” whether they will pay via cryptocurrencies.