Own a piece of the metaverse: ST to auction NFT artworks for charity

Proceeds from ST’s first-ever NFT auction will go to The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund.

Visitors in front of an immersive art installation at the Digital Art Fair in Hong Kong on Sept 30, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

For the first time in its history, The Straits Times is auctioning this column, and three of its Opinion section art illustrations, as non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

From Dec 22 to 28, the online auction will run on the digital platform Blockchain For Good, a corporate social responsibility initiative of the Blockchain Association Singapore (BAS), in partnership with Drew & Napier. Anyone can bid.

But wait, you ask. Why are we doing this, what are we auctioning, and how can you bid for them?

NFT in a nutshell

An NFT is a digital collectible represented by code on a decentralised digital ledger called a blockchain. Each NFT can be bought and sold like a physical item, but the blockchain keeps an unalterable record of its ownership and transaction history.

NFT is Collins Dictionary's word of the year, with the use of the word having jumped by 11,000 per cent during that time. Celebrities ranging from deejay Steve Aoki to lifestyle guru Martha Stewart have launched NFT collections.

In August, Visa snapped up CryptoPunk #7610, a digital character with a mohawk, green eyes and red lipstick, for US$150,000 (S$205,000) to gain a "first-hand understanding of the infrastructure requirements for a global brand to purchase, store and leverage an NFT".

Buying an NFT does not automatically grant the buyer a proprietary right to every copy or version of the underlying work. The equivalent in the physical world? Anyone can buy a Picasso print, but only one person owns the original. Or as cryptocurrency investor Paul Kell said, "you can take a picture of (a) picture, but you don't have what's under the picture".

Why we are doing this

First, to raise money for a good cause. All proceeds from the auction, less transaction and other fees, will go to The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund.

Each year, the fund supports 10,000 children and young people in their school-related expenses, such as buying meals during recess and paying for transport. Since it was started in 2000, it has disbursed more than $85 million and supported over 180,000 children and young people.

The last two years have dealt an especially heavy blow to lower-income families in Singapore. Any extra help will go a long way.

Second, we have written extensively on the world of cryptocurrencies and blockchains. Over the past year, we followed the wild gyrations of Bitcoin prices, delved into NFTs' promises and pitfalls, and explained to our readers whether it is safe to invest in cryptocurrencies.

What better way to experience the metaverse first-hand - and in the process, educate ourselves and readers on its pros and cons - than by minting and auctioning our very own NFTs?

What's up for sale?

The auction items, which have all been published in The Straits Times, are:

• An infographic on a guide to cryptocurrencies by ST artist Chng Choon Hiong;


• The illustration "Bullish Bitcoin" by ST artist Dengcoy Miel;


• The illustration "The permanence of cats" by ST artist Manuel Francisco, a visual parody of Salvador Dali's painting The Persistence of Memory;


• This column.

Go here for a description of each of the illustrations. They can also be found at this website from noon today.

The process

To test the waters, this writer set up accounts on platforms such as Foundation and Mintable. Similar to posting an online advertisement, she filled in the title and description of the item for sale and uploaded an image or video file.

Once minted, the token contains a unique link to wherever that file is saved - either at a unique digital web address or on the InterPlanetary File System, a peer-to-peer file-sharing system.

What was harder was translating her individual experience into something that would work for a company.

For example, to create art on Foundation, you must be invited by another member of its artist community.


Then there is the question of identity. Those who auction NFTs are not guaranteed to know who the buyer is, or the provenance of their funds. The bids in cryptocurrency must also be converted into fiat money before it can be credited into a bank account.

We thrashed out the legal issues with our lawyers. The platform we chose has a know-your-customer (KYC) process to identify and verify each client when they open an account.

Bidders for our NFTs, too, need to come to grips with the cryptocurrency and blockchain universe. As the auction is denominated in Ether (ETH), a cryptocurrency, you will need a wallet containing such tokens in order to bid.

A greener solution

Another concern we had was NFTs' carbon footprint. Most creators still use Ethereum, a blockchain secured using an energy-intensive proof-of-work (PoW) system.

The PoW algorithm involves solving a challenging mathematical puzzle to create new blocks in the blockchain. This process, known as "mining", needs powerful computers.

Instead, we chose a platform that runs on Polygon, which uses a greener proof-of-stake (PoS) algorithm to validate transactions. PoS attributes mining power to the population of coins held by a miner.

This way, instead of guzzling energy to solve PoW puzzles, PoS miners are limited to mining a percentage of transactions which correspond to their ownership stake.

"Gas" fees - payments made by users to compensate for the computing energy needed to process and validate transactions on the Ethereum blockchain - can come up to $100 or more per NFT when minted the usual way.

With Polygon, transaction fees cost only a few cents.

Welcome to the metaverse

We don't know if NFTs will turn out to be a passing fad. Some think they are the nadir of artistic taste. "Few of these cyber-millionaires could tell the back of a Rembrandt from the front," sniffed art critic Waldemar Januszczak.

But advocates swear by NFTs as a way to authenticate digital assets such as music and art which have been historically dogged by piracy issues. They say NFTs democratise art, by giving a platform to small-time artists and cutting out middlemen who earn commissions, such as galleries and art dealers.

NFTs are also moving into the physical world.

This year, a real estate-backed NFT, an apartment in Ukraine, was sold for 36 ETH or US$93,000 at the time of the deal. Local singer JJ Lin bought three plots of virtual real estate on the OpenSea marketplace. Buyers of luxury Breitling watches now use NFT digital passports to verify their watches' authenticity.

But until anyone can shop anywhere using applications in decentralised finance, a question mark hangs over what it means to the average person.

Today, NFTs do not offer as seamless and convenient an experience as, say, a scan-and-pay QR code at a hawker stall.

The larger questions are these: With the world on the cusp of a technological quantum leap, what does this mean for how art is defined and valued? Will the virtual world, with a digital economy powered by blockchain technology, become as real as the physical world? How will we live, work and play?

Let's go!

Check out this website for detailed instructions on how the auction works, including the successful bidders' legal rights and how to set up your wallet, complete your KYC onboarding, and bid for the items.

As with all NFT sales, you'll get the token itself: a unique digital collectible that corresponds to an image of each artwork. For as long as you own the NFT, you will enjoy a licence to the image for your own personal, non-commercial use and the right to sell or transfer the token.

Please note that there is no guarantee that the value of the NFT will retain or increase in value, and the token does not include the copyright to this article and artwork, or any reproduction rights.

See you in the metaverse, and happy bidding.

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