NFTs are making some collectors and artists rich, but success in this high-risk marketplace is more art than science.
Late on a Friday last spring, Izzy Pollak decided to buy two Bored Ape NFTs — which, as a reminder for the many people thinking, Yeah, but I still don’t know what an NFT is — means he bought unique, digital images (in this case, of apes).
As the owner of a Bored Ape, he now has commercial rights over the digital image to do with as he wishes. Many people choose to display their NFTs as their profile picture on social media accounts.
(And if you’re wondering how ownership of a digital asset can be proven: Every NFT, or non-fungible token, has a distinct serial number, and the transaction history of each NFT is stored on the blockchain, so people can see who the real owner is.)
Mr. Pollak, 29, who bought three more a few months later, obtained these from a collection of 10,000 NFTs known as the Bored Ape Yacht Club. Some of the apes are wearing gold jackets or animal-print tunics. Others are smoking cigars or smiling widely.
At the time, Mr. Pollak, who works for Genies, a tech start-up in Los Angeles that makes NFTs and avatars, didn’t have a lot of disposable income. “I was living in a four-bedroom townhouse with three other people,” he said. “We all shared a bathroom. It felt like college life.”
He didn’t come from money, either. During the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Pollak said, when he was 16, his mother couldn’t pay the mortgage, so he and his family had to rent an apartment.
Mr. Pollak’s interest in NFTs was spurred by hearing people talk about them on Clubhouse. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is insane. I’m about to spend hundreds of dollars on a picture of a monkey,’” he said.
Turns out it was a wise decision. Last fall, several months after he had bought his first NFTs, Mr. Pollak’s apes skyrocketed in value. He sold one that he had bought for approximately 14 Ether (a virtual currency that was worth about $40,000 on the day of the purchase) for around 70 Ether (approximately $231,000 on the day of sale).
He used the money for a down payment on a three-bedroom house in Los Angeles with a backyard. “We call it the Chimp Chalet,” he said, laughing. “I always wanted to own a house but never thought I could make it work.”
He now has three Bored Ape NFTs in his portfolio. He hasn’t sold them yet, but he will one day. For the first time in his life he feels financially well-off.
A fortunate handful of people now have their very own rags-to-riches stories thanks to NFTs. By investing in the right project at the right time, some collectors and digital artists have made “life-changing money,” said Matt Medved, a founder of Nft Now, a digital media publication about NFTs. Some are using the funds to pay off student loans, buy a home or quit jobs they hated. (Some people, of course, are also buying yachts or throwing lavish parties.)
“NFTs are like manna from heaven,” said Mr. Pollak, who also acknowledges how lucky he is. “I’ve heard horror stories of people spending their rent money on NFTs. It’s heartbreaking to see people risk their money when it doesn’t usually work out.”
Most people who make or buy NFTs never turn a profit. There is no regulation or consumer protection, and trading them is basically as risky as gambling. Investing in cryptocurrency is high risk and involves a lot of technical know-how and luck; few financial professionals would recommend it, and scams are aplenty.
Mr. Medved encourages people to think of NFTs like baseball cards. “For generations our society has accepted that rare baseball cards have value,” he said. “There is a rare Mickey Mantle card that probably costs 5 cents to make that sold for $5.2 million last year. And why? It’s not about the physical piece of card stock. It’s the history, the rarity, the scarcity, the cultural relevance.”
“It comes down to fandom,” he added.
Similarly, what many NFT artists create or collectors invest in will be worth little or nothing in the long term. But there are a few NFTs that have become very valuable and have earned their owners and creators a vast sum of money in a short period of time.
The Bored Apes that Mr. Pollak bought, for example, could be minted — i.e. go to market — at .08 Ether ($200 last spring). Now, less than a year later, the cheapest one is worth about 73 Ether (about $190,000). (Ether can be converted to cash on major cryptocurrency platforms like Coinbase and Gemini and then transferred to a bank account.)
Claire Silver, an artist in her early 30s who works with artificial intelligence, is another NFT success story. In 2017, she was given three CryptoPunks, a collection of 10,000 unique pixel art characters generated from an algorithm, by someone she met on Slack.
“I was in a chat room about cryptocurrency, and I met this guy who was interested in art,” said Ms. Silver, who lives a nomadic lifestyle but most recently lived in Denver. He told her he had 730 CryptoPunks, she said, “and asked if I wanted three. I said, ‘Sure.’”
In 2017, collectors could claim CryptoPunks for free as long as they had an Etherum wallet. Now the cheapest one is selling for around 68 Ether (almost $175,000).
She held on to hers until 2020 when she heard rumblings that they were selling for a lot of money. She sold one in July 2021 for about $60,000 and still has two others. (Many are selling for six figures. One sold last month for almost $600,000.)
Ms. Silver also makes her own NFTs. She, like all NFT artists, earns money from the original sale and may receive 10 percent of every secondary sale. One of her pieces sold for 15 Ether ($63,000 at the time).
She has saved so much that she finally feels financially secure, at least for now. “This amount of money is a big deal to me because I come from poverty. We had to accept church donations for food growing up,” she said. “The other day I walked into Walmart and was like, ‘I can buy the cheese, I can buy the good coffee.’ I had never experienced that freedom before.”
She recently returned from a trip to Britain, where Sotheby’s was auctioning her work, and has a trip planned to Japan.
This month she is even giving her mother a house, which she paid for in all cash. “I got one of those big red bows, and I am going to stick it on the front door like in those commercials,” she said. “I have been wanting to do something like this for my mom since I was a little kid.”
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Only two years ago Alex Lugo, 29, who lives in Lindenhurst, N.Y., drove trucks to support his wife and two children, 9 and 5. “I was making $25 an hour,” he said. “That’s nothing in New York.” He decided to enroll in a program to learn how to trade in cryptocurrency, and it changed his family’s life.
While some collectors buy select NFTs and hold on to them for years, he flips many in the short term. “I ended up buying them and flipping some of them for 10K, some for 30K, some for 5K, 2K,” he said.
He has also benefited from investing in newer types of NFTs. “I own real estate in the Metaverse next to the Adidas headquarters,” he said. “It’s like owning real estate in the Hamptons, because what is Adidas going to do when they want to expand? They are going to buy me out and pay me millions of dollars so I will move.”
(“This sounds speculative rather than anything that could be easily proven,” Mr. Medved said in an email.)
Mr. Lugo made enough money from these individual sales that he quit his truck driving job in January 2021. Now, he says he has been able to tuck away a significant amount of savings for his children, who will “have the freedom to choose what they want to do with their lives.”
He and his family currently live in a two-bedroom apartment, but he is looking to buy a four-bedroom house in Lindenhurst.
NFTs have helped others dig themselves out of financial holes and get a new start.
Gossamer Farris, 32, is now a full-time artist in Brooklyn. But it took NFTs to get her there comfortably.
After college she worked a 9 to 5 job at a student loan servicing center. “I was doing art as much as I could after work,” she said. “I was making illustrations and sculptures and textile work, and I was also making items like little stickers that people could buy in my online store.”
In 2019, she quit that job to become a tattoo artist, but even that was a struggle, especially in the early months of the pandemic. “I had a hard time making ends meet,” she said. “Unfortunately I had a lot of debt like credit card debt and health-related debt because I am a transgender person and had surgery.”
In the winter of 2021 she saw people were going crazy for NFTs, and she decided to try to make her own collections, with work that focuses on her Filipino and Black heritage, and collaborate with other artists on their NFTs.
She has since paid off her debt, and now makes enough money through NFTs that she can pursue her passions exclusively. “I don’t have the stress that I need to make money as an artist,” she said. “I can pay the rent and not have to worry about making ends meet.”
While some people are getting rich off NFTs, Mr. Medved advises people to remember that many other NFT projects lose value over time. “You should never invest any more money than you are willing to lose,” he said. “The NFT space, like the crypto space, is very volatile, and the markets go up and down very quickly.”
“I do think a lot of NFTs will end up going to zero in the long run,” he said. “Your success depends on your ability to pick the best projects, and that isn’t easy.”