Why buy something for vast sums of money that other people can seemingly have for free? This is one of the puzzles confronting people new to both the art market and the market in Non-Fungible Tokens (“NFTs”). Both soaring markets depend on a stark division between real and fake, original and copy. Yet in a world of increasingly cheap and limitless copying, why do people still pay so much for authentic originals when you can download or 3D-print identical copies? What is the mysterious mechanism that creates value in a world of unfettered mechanical and digital reproduction?
For years, the mechanism was copyright law, which was created to solve the problem of how to monetize works that could be copied. But the art market, presaging the NFT market, long ago cast aside copyright as the mechanism to create value in a world of copies. Both markets instead depend on a non-legal market mechanism—what I call the “norm of authenticity.”
Yet, in this Article I show, through a deep exploration of the art market, that the norm of authenticity, the bedrock of that market, is artificial: protean, often arbitrary, and ultimately a mutually agreed upon fiction. And the importance of understanding artificial authenticity is urgent because it now has migrated from art to govern the market for NFTs.