The Millennium Sapphire Files: Interview with our NFT Expert
We sat down with our NFT expert, Thomas Lasseau to discuss art, tokens, and NFTs. Keep reading to learn more.
Thomas Lasseau is a creative polymath who has enhanced future-focused ventures throughout his diverse career, from creating unique works of art to 3D modeling to financial engineering and property investments. More recently, he has been developing ideas for NFTs, including work on several NFTs for the Millennium Sapphire Fine Art NFT Studio. Thomas holds Degrees in Economics in Visual Arts with an emphasis on Finance and Creative Technologies from Brown University and he holds a Dual Degree in Taxation and Mergers & Acquisitions Law from the UCLA — School of Law.
hat’s an interesting educational background. Tell us a bit more about your early foray into arts and finance, and how you made that transition from having an interest in economics, mergers & acquisitions to the creative industry and the NFTs.
I’ve always been kind of able to bridge between those two worlds and I’ve never felt entirely home in either of them. I was always the analytical person amongst the artist and the creative person and amongst the more business, finance-types, but I’ve always been just deeply compelled by the worlds of economics, finance, law, all that sort of things.
So I think my fascination with the structure of markets, the nature of commerce and how things work out in the world has been fundamentally more intellectual and scholarly than professional, and I always felt drawn to complex analytical structures ever since an early age.
So it has been a long road that has led me to where I am today, where I kind of just continued to add tools to the toolbox and became a bit of a swiss army knife of a person with my feet in these two different worlds. So, it’s actually really exciting for me to have a chance to work for an enterprise such as this, where I can get to think about compelling financial structures like securitization of works of art, but then also I get to draw storyboards and art direct animation, and conceive of new ideas for things that pay homage to works of art that I’ve appreciated throughout my entire life.
Help explain NFTs and why they’ve become so popular over the past 12–18 months.
So NFTs are a bit of an enigma but also, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating technological developments of recent years. NFTs are nonfungible tokens. Non-fungibility means that they are one of a kind. So that in itself is fascinating because it creates an interesting opportunity for something that is unique to have verifiably decentralized ownership.
But where it gets really interesting is with art. Because with art in the world of traditional fine art, uniqueness, and rarity has been a major driver behind the value in the world of art. You look at this only one Mona Lisa and there hasn’t been another one over hundreds of years and so, it’s retained a lot of its value because of that. Now with an NFT, it’s like a real-world work of art, except that it is verifiable through these distributed networks on the blockchain. So you can actually tie a work of digital art to a marker on the blockchain that then allows someone to verify their ownership of that work of digital art. Now what’s really interesting here is that, for a long time, people said that digital art couldn’t have value in the same way that real-world pieces of art like a painting or a sculpture did.
There’s actually an interesting anecdote here. There was a German philosopher named Walter Benjamin who wrote a piece, I think in the 1930s, called ‘Works of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. He grappled with the problem of how you couldn’t actually have value and meaning and significance in something that had been mechanically reproduced. He thought that there was an aura, as he called, of authenticity around an original work of art, such as a painting that had to do with the manual technique and plasticity of the actual physical real-world media. The relationship between the hand of the artist, and the dab of paint, or the block of stone. NFTs in a way solve this problem. Like, “Yes.” The joke is, “Oh, can’t I just like, right-click on the image and save it to my desktop?”
You can but you don’t own it. There’s a little bit of magic there which I think exists out in the world of art where people wonder why does this object has value and meaning, maybe it’s something like a found object.
The classic example is the ‘Urinal’ by Marcel Duchamp. He literally took in a porcelain toilet put it on a pedestal and was like, “Hey, it’s art!” So I think there’s a little bit of that within NFTs as well. Words like, the artist is still imbuing value and there’s a little bit of collective hand waving that takes place where everybody says, “You know what, we all kind of agree through this interesting form of consensus which is actually embodied in the blockchain itself because the blockchain is kind of a tool for being consensus in a way.”
And I think that there’s a little bit in the way that fiat currency has value because we all agree it does, and people say blockchain and Bitcoin kind of circumvents that need for consensus, but we actually have consensus between all the computers and the network. So I think it’s kind of a combination of all these different factors which kind of layer onto each other to make NFTs actually capable of holding value in our current society with the technology that’s currently available to us.
So you’ve seen these pretty staggering valuations of highly collectible things. Some of which have more artistic value than others, but which are trading hands in a way that’s very similar to how art has traded hands, except that, there is a democratizing element.
Perhaps, a new generation of wealth has emerged into the marketplace, through people being empowered through cryptocurrency trading, and people who have achieved staggering wealth.
But the fact is that a lot of the value of art has traditionally come from these overlapping layers of institutional legitimacy. And I think what we’re seeing is a new culture of legitimate legitimization emerging that the blockchain is playing a major role in. So you have these NFTs and a lot of people who, frankly, maybe haven’t looked into it all the way say, “Oh, this is ridiculous! You’re talking about a picture of a rock, or like a little pixelated drawing of a crypto punk. How is this valuable?”
Well, the fact this is. People are willing to pay for it. They believe that they own it. Their pride of ownership is tied to their knowledge of its non-fungibility as verified by the blockchain. These are the building blocks of, frankly, a new era of valued creation and the creation of new aesthetic mediums. So I am just very excited to be exploring all the new opportunities in this space and I think everyone else should be too. And it is a little bit mind-blowing that we’re getting million-dollar valuations for like a picture of a rock. But part of it also has to do with the market expanding massively, that someone you know in India, and someone in South America, and someone in London can all bid on something and look at it on their phone. And that wasn’t previously possible like you had to actually be in the auction house, looking at the work of art before.
So who are we to say that this picture of a rock or something is not valuable if supply and demand and global market access by everybody, who has their capacity to be online, has determined that to be so?
It’s a fascinating space to be working at right now. So tell us what exactly have you been working on and how does this process work for you as an artist?
I participate in the conception of ideas around what we could create as NFTs, I draw storyboards, and then I art direct digital designers and animation studios to actually bring into being these ideas.
The Millennium Sapphire itself is a homage to the history of art and human accomplishments that contains carved portrayals of many of the greatest works of art and architecture and technology that has been known to humanity. And we are using that as a cornerstone of our inspiration for creating these NFTs, which is amazing for me because it’s pretty much 4,000 years of human history as an inspiration to draw. So the opportunities for creativity are pretty boundless, just get to draw on all of that history and accomplishment and the beauty of the Sapphire itself, to try to build a bridge between the world of traditional fine art and this new creative medium on the blockchain.
But why create NFTs around The Millennium Sapphire?
The Millennium Sapphire is a fascinating work of art in itself. The CEO, Daniel McKinney, made the comment that it is an NFT in itself. And in an interesting way, because sapphires are some of the hardest material in the world, carving the history of humanity onto this Sapphire actually has created a time capsule of sorts that conceptually bridges a gap between the ancient pyramids and modern inventions like the airplane, renaissance artists or more contemporary creative accomplishments as well. It is a carved piece of stone that tells the story of the development of human aspiration at which we find ourselves at the pinnacle.
And what’s the business model behind the Millennium Fine Art NFT Studio? How does that work?
Fundamentally we are hoping to democratize ownership of works of fine art through securitization on the blockchain and then allowing cryptocurrency holders to own a stake in that.
We will probably anticipate having a large portfolio of traditional works of art that we kind of launch NFTs off of. So we tried to supplement this securitization process through doing things like distributing NFTs as a dividend to our token holders, but also partnering with institutions like public companies to create NFTs that can serve either promotional purposes for them or create our own proprietary NFTs that we can then distribute in partnership with something like a traditional auction house or perhaps, collaborating with the state of one of these famous artists where we could actually engage in licensing negotiations with the owners of some other paintings that aren’t in our portfolio.
So it really is about giving people access to art through the blockchain in the format of NFTs, on the one hand, and through actual securitized ownership of a real-world, physical art object on the other.
I suppose the first rule is that you must own the IP of something before you can actually create an NFT around the artwork itself. Is that right?
So while you can sell an NFT of anything, there are still legal frameworks out in the world that must be abided by. The world of fine art has been one in which there is a lot of slippage in the sense that there’s commentary and satire, and fair used and people make art that is derived from and reflect prior works of art and everything is a remix of everything else. All that is true but, at the same time, you just don’t want to violate other people’s intellectual property rights. We are trying to be very cognizant of that because what we’re fundamentally trying to do is create a stepping stone from the world of physical art ownership to the world of digital art ownership.
And I think a part of that has to do with actually giving due consideration to things like a licensing agreement. Well, you could say, “Hey! I went to The Louvre and I took a picture of the Mona Lisa and I made an NFT and now it’s on the blockchain and someone now owns that photo.” That may be true but you still might get a cease-and-desist from The Louvre, unless you have an anonymous wallet.
So museums own the rights to the portrayals of the paintings that hang on their wall. I mean, a painting that was done in the renaissance is obviously, in the public domain; the artist died hundreds of years ago. However, the painting itself is owned by a museum or a private collector, and high-resolution digital photography of that painting and photography rights and access to that painting are all controlled by the painting’s owner. So you can’t actually just go on Google images and create an NFT of Caravaggio painting and think that you actually own the rights to that. You still could be getting in trouble with a museum.
So we are trying to do our due diligence and where necessary collaborate with those institutions and estates that we can who are amenable to the idea of tapping into the creative technological infrastructure that we are building in order to monetize their traditional works into this new crypto blockchain art era.
Speaking of museums, museums and other art companies are creating NFTs along similar lines to Millennium Fine Art.
Recently, the Hermitage Museum in Russia did create a series of NFTs based upon some of the masterworks hanging in their galleries and they basically took advantage of the fact that they owned the photographic rights to those paintings, so they were able to, essentially, publish on the blockchain high-resolution images of their paintings, works by Matisse and various others. They had their head curator sign each NFT and they had a very successful sale. And so that functions like a print of sorts, like in the museum gift shop, you can buy a high-resolution print of a painting that’s in the museum.
So I think we’re going to see more and more museums starting to take advantage of that opportunity. What we’re doing is similar but also different. I think where possible, we want to partner with private collectors or the estates of famous artists in order to create NFTs that honor those works but also build upon them. So while we could just photograph a work of art that we got the rights to input on the blockchain, what we’re also excited about is using some of these new tools like 3D animation, in order to build upon in a way that also honors the original.
So creating something like an animated version of that painting, which is still close enough to that painting to be, perhaps derivative in the eyes of the courts, so we would need the rights in order to actually proceed with that, but also new and exciting, and using the tools available.
Another example of somebody else who’s doing stuff like these — there’s a traveling show that they basically took a series of Van Gogh paintings and animated them, and projected them onto the walls, so it’s like this immersive traveling experience that I think it was in New York and Los Angeles and a number of other cities, and this was basically a number of digital artists and animators who partnered with these museums and entered into the licensing negotiations then created this new experience.
I would say that we are probably trying to do something more in that vein, where we’re really trying to take advantage of some of the incredible beauty and talent of these artworks that were created in the past and usher them into this new technological space and take advantage of some of these new tools that can actually create a new kind of experience that builds upon, but also respects the original artwork itself.
You’re also creating NFTs solely around the figures carved into the Sapphire, based on some of the 134 carvings on that Sapphire? So there’s plenty of subject material to work with.
Yes, for sure. It’s very much a reflection of the entire span of human history that’s on there. So there really is a ton of opportunity to try to create NFTs based upon all that subject matter. So that is very much something we have been endeavoring to do. We’ve got a number of NFTs that we’ve been working on that actually do try to tell some of those stories and honor some of those accomplishments.
I would say that the history portrayed on the Sapphire is kind of the guiding light and conceptual framework within which we are creating these NFTs. Obviously, it creates a pretty wide spectrum of possible things that we can create NFTs about and we’re also creating our own proprietary NFTs that are more perhaps, responding to the contemporary moment.
I think that a big part of the Sapphire itself is about creating a new work of art that reflects older accomplishments. I think what we’re trying to do with the NFTs is a new work of art. So it’s like a kind of Russian doll of conceptual development that’s taking place here.
Are there any plans to invite Alessio Boschi, the world-renowned jewelry designer and artist, behind the design ideas for the Millennium Sapphire?
Absolutely! Alessio is an example of someone who comes from the more classical background, working with these traditional mediums. What he did with the Sapphire is truly spectacular and our hope is to use some of this creative technological infrastructure that we’ve been building to empower somebody like Alessio, to bring his talents into this new space. He is familiar with working with stones, metals, and things of that nature. The hope would be that we could provide him with the tools and resources necessary, to bring his vision into life in this new digital format. Absolutely, we very much intend to work with him as our venture continues.
And what role do you see NFTs playing in the future, either for art, gaming, or in the entertainment sector? Where exactly is this blockchain technology leading us right now?
I mean, it’s all to the moon, for one thing. But also I think it’s going to be very widespread. I think people are going to start interfacing with NFTs because the non-fungible nature of an NFT lends itself really well to a ton of applications out in the real world and in the digital world.
So in the realm of gaming or virtual reality, the possibilities are almost limitless, like literally any surface in a virtual world in a 3D environment in a game could be an NFT. Any 3D model could be an NFT.
There are already marketplaces in video games where people are purchasing a skin for their video game character, or a new vehicle, or the entire game itself could be an NFT. I think that we’re going to see stuff like the Metaverse continue to develop.
We will probably see a lot of people having their own portfolio of NFTs that reflect their sort of personalization of their digital identity in virtual reality, in the game worlds that they enjoy playing in. Then in the real world, what’s interesting is I think we’re going to see stuff like something like a certificate of authenticity, or the deed for a house, or the piece of paper or contract that used to represent stock in a public company.
What’s cool about the blockchain and a non-fungible token is that it literally can’t be forged and the chain of custody is traceable and stored on a decentralized ledger. So we could very likely see something like a deed or a certificate of authenticity existing as an NFT. Now what’s interesting is, there is a sort of intellectual challenge of how do you create a one-to-one connection between something that is on the blockchain and something that is out in the real world, in a way that, that piece of paper can be forged or could be swapped with another piece of paper, you could create an artificial paper trail for something.
Blockchain may prevent forgery within that paper trail but there’s still is the issue of how do we know that this real-world asset is the one that’s being referred to by the thing that’s on the blockchain, and so it gets tricky.
There is just immense potential in the blockchain and in NFTs specifically, to become extremely widespread in digital and physical life over time.
Fractional ownership of the Millennium Sapphire and ownership of NFTs, and ownership of the MS Tokens is still quite unique. The scarcity but also trust and traceability itself could be a real game-changer to help democratize ownership of real works of art, am I right?
Absolutely! What we’re trying to do here with the MS Token is give people that might not previously have had access to ownership of something that might otherwise, be in a private collection or on a museum or only ownable by multi-billionaires or something and it sits in a vault in a free-port somewhere in Switzerland or Singapore and might not even see the light of day, otherwise except when it gets loaned to a museum or something.
Now, with securitization to the blockchain, it actually opens up the possibility for people to not only have their own portfolio of stakes in works of art but also access to manage portfolios of art and other collectible assets. So yes, I think that that is actually one of the things that’s in the immediate term. I’m most excited about what this project is, that we are literally creating a portal through which normal people can suddenly gain a fruit hold in owning these priceless works of art that they might not otherwise get access to.
Where should someone go to if they want to learn a little bit more about the Millennium Fine Art NFTs, or the MS Token?
I would invite everyone to take a look at our website which is mstoken.art, and you can get access to all of our other communities like Discord and Telegram and other social media channels. Buy and trade the MS Token on CryptoSX and join us on this exciting path towards democratizing art ownership through the blockchain and creating new exciting works of digital art.