On The Tonight Show in late January, held up a portrait of a cartoon ape wearing a sailor’s hat, a striped shirt and heart-shaped sunglasses. “This is my ape,” he said, as his guest, Paris Hilton, gave it her approval. She also had an ape, which Fallon had earlier shown the audience, a red-furred version wearing sunglasses and an S&M cap. “We’re part of the same community,” Fallon said. “We’re both apes.”
This odd moment between Hilton and Fallon hurtled Bored Ape Yacht Club, a NFT Monkey collection of NFTs depicting apes, into the spotlight. Other celebrities were showing off theirs too: In January, Justin Bieber posted a photo on Instagram of his Bored Ape #3001, sometimes called Lonely Bored Ape, which relates to his song “Lonely.” (This ape’s eyes are filled with tears.) Bieber paid $1.29 million for it, according to Etherscan, which tracks blockchain transactions, then went on to purchase a second for $470,000. For many observers, these were record-scratch moments in the middle of a long-running party, the kind of thing that made one wonder: What is going on?
In September 2021, Sotheby’s offered up for auction a cache of 101 Bored Ape NFTs as a lot in a special sale called Ape In! The digital art revolution had seemingly remade the art market in the months prior, and this was the finest collection of non-fungible tokens ever assembled by one of the world’s oldest auction houses, founded in 1744. Scrolling through the catalog of cartoon monkeys in funny hats and jackets, one could see one rare Bored Ape with solid gold fur and holographic eyes, but also rarer yet, the Ape with an unshaven face eating a piece of pizza. For digital-art enthusiasts who aspired to membership in the Bored Ape Yacht Club, this was a huge deal.
The house was confident that Ape In! could ride the NFT momentum that had been building since the prior spring—one that began when Everydays, a work by the digital artist Beeple, sold at Christie’s for $69 million—and move these online pictures of weird primates to the tune of millions. A promotional video showed the cartoon monkeys in DJ booths spinning EDM at a party in what appeared to be Sotheby’s global headquarters on York Avenue in Manhattan. Young and ambitious specialists in the house’s digital-art department, a brand-new endeavor, bullishly offered the lot at an estimate of somewhere between $12 million and $18 million.
Instead, the lot of 107 NFTs sold for $24.4 million, smashing records for Bored Apes. What newly minted patron of the digital arts snagged this for eight figures? Sotheby’s wouldn’t comment on the buyer apart from saying that among those heavily involved in the bidding were legacy art collectors.
“We’re seeing a growing number of traditional art buyers getting interested in NFTs, cohead of digital art sales at the house, told ARTnews at the time. And why not? Some thought these monkeys with headgear and lasers for eyeballs could be worth billions in our not-so-distant virtual lives. Bored Ape Yacht Club, the moniker given to the 10,000 unique iterations of the NFT created by Yuga Labs in April 2021 and initially sold for about $190 a pop, tweeted out, “To the buyer, I think we speak for everybody when we say: WELCOME TO THE CLUB.” It punctuated the message with a skull-and-crossbones emoji, a monkey emoji, and a boat emoji—to signify a yacht.
Increasingly, it looks as though the buyer was not a traditional art collector or even a human person that other Ape owners could welcome to a club. The blockchain is an opaque-at-best space, but in the months following the purchase, some close observers have settled on the idea that the buyer of the Apes at Sotheby’s was FTX, the crypto exchange that recently crashed and burned, resulting in an inquiry into the possible market machinations of its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, who is currently charged with crimes related to the overnight disappearance of billions of his investors’ funds in the fall. (Bankman-Fried has pleaded not guilty and, in a statement, said he “did not steal funds.”)