The artwork of Ross Ulbricht, the imprisoned creator of the first major dark web black market, brought in more than $6 million through an online auction Thursday.
Ulbricht, 37, is serving a life sentence for crimes related to his operation of the Silk Road, the first of many online black markets where people bought and sold drugs, fake identity documents and other illegal goods — often with bitcoin. An avowed libertarian and early bitcoin pioneer, Ulbricht enjoys cult hero status among many cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
The Ulbricht sale is for the digital rights to 10 of his works, including several paintings and drawings he’s created while in prison, as well as several childhood drawings. A painting of a skull, titled “Death,” is accompanied by an essay Ulbricht wrote where he contemplates his mortality as he spends his life in prison.
Ownership of the art is tied to an NFT, or nonfungible token, which is a digital deed of ownership built on the technology that makes most cryptocurrencies possible. While still largely bought and sold by hobbyists, the market for NFTs of collectible images has exploded this year, jumping from an estimated $400 million to $7 billion this year, JP Morgan has estimated.
The NFT sale presents a rare opportunity for his supporters, many of whom have gotten rich from cryptocurrency’s rapid rise in value in recent years, to provide him aid while he’s in prison.
The buyer was a crowdfunded effort by a group called FreeRossDAO, which held an open fundraiser for Ulbritch’s supporters.
“Ross Ulbricht founded Silk Road, introduced hundreds of thousands to crypto, and received a disproportionate prison sentence of two lifetimes plus 40 years,” FreeRossDAO fundraiser site reads. “Stand against injustice. Free Ross.”
Ulbricht’s mother, Lyn, didn’t respond to a request for comment, but wrote on Twitter that proceeds from the sale would go toward efforts to free her son and to a fund to help connect prisoners with their children.
Because Ulbricht’s convictions were for nonviolent offenses, the sale is unlikely to violate “Son of Sam” laws, which aim to bar criminals from profiting off the notoriety of their crimes, said Dan Novack, the chair of the New York State Bar Committee on Media Law.
“There are dozens of state Son of Sam laws, but the common denominator is generally violent crime,” Novack said.
Kevin Collier is a reporter covering cybersecurity, privacy and technology policy for NBC News.