Letter from London: the Performative Cruelty of a Scamming Exercise

‘I guess I’m just so used to shit happening because nothing good happens anymore,’ grinned the artist last week through proverbial gritted teeth. It was the long-distance — and long-winded — scam just tried on her which explained the mood. Though unsuccessful, it had not bred compassion in the home. Just then, the artist’s favourite Swedish white mug full of tea slipped from her hands, giving the old chaos theory a go. Very unlike her, I was thinking. I heard it hit the floorboards. It is the mug that never breaks. ‘Just like me,’ smiled the artist, picking it up, unbroken. She was back. Then she remembered the scam again: ‘Makes me feel sick,’ she spat venomously.

Let me tell you what happened: it was hardly the children’s ambulance racing by just now, or a wildfire in Hawaii, but it was a bizarre attempt by an American on a Londoner. Not that scams, or attempted scams, are peculiar to Eagleland. What bugged me most was that twisted into the whole thing was a promise of something good for the artist, something special. Dangled so positively like that was something the doctor ordered — sales and an increased profile. To mess with the wiring of someone like this — artists are often, though not always, vulnerable people already, largely through sacrifices made in order to remain artists — was for me the pits.

It began with a sunny day after much rain. Taking a short break from a challenging new piece, with more and more detail coaxed daily, the artist was supping her tea from that mug and standing by the large open window in the sitting room. Just then, her phone messaged her. ‘What do you think?’ she said, after reading it. It was sent privately to her favoured social media site, asking if works on display were her own. ‘Yes,’ she wrote back. By coincidence, this person shared the same surname as the artist — she doesn’t use her married name. ‘Your art works are so creative,’ he wrote, ‘I can’t imagine your thoughts while creating these masterpieces.’ Adding: ‘I am an art enthusiast and curator from NY. Where are you from?’ The artist thanked him for the kind words and said she was in London. I was happy for her. I agreed with him.

He then explained that he was currently having a conversation with the marketing director of well-known major gallery based in New York. He even gave this person’s name. The artist felt encouraged, especially when he said they were currently working on a project together that had to do with a virtual reality art gallery. ‘We are looking into the future,’ he wrote. It was true the gallery were by now established pioneers in the NFT (non-fungible token) sphere. The artist even looked at a photograph of this woman. These were works sold digitally. Two years ago, an NFT created by digital artist Beeple sold for $69.3m through Christie’s. I had looked into it then. ‘They are a scam,’ broadcaster and filmmaker Max Keiser — now a cryptocurrency adviser to President Bukele of El Salvador — warned me about NFTs at the time.

‘One thing I’ve learnt over time in the business world,’ continued the man claiming to share the artist’s surname, ‘is that determination takes you places you’d never have imagined yourself. Adopting an attitude to constantly improve and with the right mentoring there’s no stopping success.’ As the messages kept rolling in like soft breakers on a warm beach, the artist kept updating me. Now he said he wanted to talk to her about ‘purchasing some of your art works as NFT and your partnership on this project’. He said the woman and gallery were willing to share a proposal; he just needed a preferred email address. No harm in giving that, we decided, not entirely impressed. ‘Thank you,’ he wrote back. ‘Let me know when you receive the proposal, then I will select the NFT that will be bought on this project.’

A day passed and the artist had re-buried herself in her work. The music she was playing was Wet Leg and Young Fathers; the vibe from the studio positive. I was relieved. Mid-morning, she paused what she was doing and came to have a chat. She had those two epaulets of paint on each shoulder from regularly wiping her smaller brushes there. She decided to message him again about when she was receiving the proposal. The silence made her nervous. ‘I’m sure the gallery will reach you asap,’ he wrote back promptly.

Next from the man came six screen-shots from the artist’s social media site and a message stating they will be buying NFTs of these for the exhibition ‘while the physical versions are also auctioned for a higher price’. He asked if this was the artist’s first partnership like this with a gallery, to which the artist replied she had been represented by a number of major galleries before, but not in a partnership like this. ‘I believe we met for a reason and am willing to help you,’ he wrote. ‘In fact you will be given an invitation directly from the gallery with all expenses paid by them once I present your NFTs.’ The artist asked what he meant by all expenses paid? He replied: ‘I meant your flight expenses for the invitation to the gallery will be paid for you.’

‘The thing is,’ he next wrote, ‘the exhibition is coming up really soon and I am fully positive your designs are what is needed for this project.’ He continued: ‘So I wish for us to go ahead with the transaction so I can buy the NFTs and show it to them, by which time you will be reached out to.’ There was more: ‘I’m interested in buying seven of your NFTs. Each of them will be bought for 5.5 Ethereums. 5.5 Ethereums is worth $10k.’

This was when the artist really began to worry. Something did not feel right. Things were moving about a bit with a sleight of hand. Just last week, meanwhile, Damien Hirst, whose art collection includes a number of the artist’s works, said his brand new ‘Where the Land Meets the Sea’ series of works will be entering the NFT space as well. The artist wrote to the man: ‘I really need to know more about you first. Can you let me know for instance your bona fide business or background? I get asked about NFTs all the time and have always declined. Also, I was under the impression I was about to receive something from [name of prestigious gallery]. Are you working for them?’

He came back quickly and said he was indeed working for them. He gave another spiel about the future of art expanding towards the digital world: not something the artist disputed. She said she needed to think about this. She returned to her studio, pulled the chair towards the wall, continued working. Every day for the previous fortnight she said would be her last day on this piece. But the image continued to flower in all sorts of remarkable ways. It looked deep, though, challenging, decisively abstract. She still kept thinking about NFT man.

She finally received the proposal from the art gallery. It spoke of being ‘captivated by your artistic talent and the innovative nature of your creations, and we believe that this collaboration will enable us to redefine the boundaries of traditional art while embracing the emerging digital art landscape’. It added that they were pleased to propose a purchase price of 6 Ethereum ($11,200) for each of the NFT artworks, ‘ensuring fair compensation for your exceptional talent and creativity’. It then said the gallery ‘proposes a purchase price of 4 Ethereum ($7,500) for each of your NFT artworks.’ (A price-drop there, we were thinking.) It requested the artist create an account for herself on a site specialising in NFTs. She would have to fund this herself ‘in order to mint her art’. It would cost her 0.25 ETH each work, approximately $2,700 in total. The next giveaway was the extra ‘e’ in the word ‘gallery’ in the gallery’s email address being uses, plus a missing vowel in the woman’s first name. This was disastrous.

Who knows what catastrophe would have followed had the artist not sighed deeply and walked away. It is likely something untoward and spiralling would have arose from self-funding the minting of her own art. Naturally, it made the artist wonder how many artists had fallen for this, lost their money, shredded hope, and all because of a devious and clever — well, not so clever — man. It wasn’t so much that we were foolish enough to believe him at first, it was the ingratiating tone, the apparent blindness to someone else’s feelings, the light skipping that accompanied it, the gently pulled petals and fluttering praise.

Lying awake that night, I actually began to wonder if we should not in fact turn this whole thing around, maybe get in touch with the real gallery to warn them that this sort of thing was happening in their name, at the same time as introduce them to the artist’s new work? Or would that just be a polite way of doing exactly what had just happened to the artist, I smiled to myself?

Peter Bach lives in London.