Art by Algorithm: Christie’s Auction for the First Time AI Print

It could be an unfinished Rembrandt, maybe a Vermeer. The blurry print “Edmond de Belamy” shows a man in a dark cowl with a white collar, reminiscent of a French clergyman in the 17th or 18th century. But instead of an old master, there was a computer at work: The portrait is the first work of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to come under the hammer of a major auction house – with no clear rules about who the author is and who owns the rights.

“min G max D Ex [log (D (x))] + Ez [log (1-D (G (z)))]” is written as a signature in the lower corner. This refers to the algorithm that produced the work. Christie’s was more cautious in estimating that auctioning in New York would cost as much as $ 8,900 and predicted “KI’s arrival on the global auction stage.” On Thursday, however, five bidders drove the price up sharply. The contract was awarded to an anonymous bidder on the phone at a good $ 432,000 (380,000 euros).

Behind the work is the Paris collective Obvious, which sold in February already a work from his Belamy series to art collector Nicolas Laugero Lasserre. He paid 10,000 euros and spoke of a “grotesque and great at the same time” approach. There are now eleven Belamy prints. The fictitious family is named after AI researcher Ian Goodfellow, whose last name translates into “bel ami” (good friend) in French.


15,000 portraits as a training basis

In Goodfellow’s Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), two competing parts of an algorithm compete against each other. The “generator” tries to outsmart the “discriminator” – in this case the question of whether a painting is real or created by the computer. The basis for this was a data set of 15,000 portraits that were created between the 14th and 20th centuries. On the basis of this, the generator produced images until its counterpart held one man-made.

“People should have as little influence as possible on the finished work during the whole process,” says Gauthier Vernier, who, with Hugo Caselles-Dupré and Pierre Fautrel, is behind the collective Obvious, the magazine Time. All three are 25 years old according to Time. Her motto: “Creativity is not just for people.” With the revenue, they want to continue training their algorithm, put money in computing power and try on 3D objects.

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Approximately 380,000 euros paid by a bidder for the art work “Edmond de Belamy” (Photo: Picture alliance)

AI Auction is Christie’s answer to Sotheby’s Banksy coup

What works as a nice gag for the art market today may soon require new laws. “If a work was conceived by a human, but produced by a machine, who is the author then?” Asks the Art Newspaper. And if people do not intervene at all, could an AI alone own the copyright? Authorship, according to Vernier, can not according to current law. For example, AI robot Sophia had already obtained Saudi citizenship a year ago.

Christie’s enters new territory with the auction and delivers an answer to the old competitor Sotheby’s. He had mastered the headlines for two weeks after the spectacular auction of a Banksy picture that partly destroyed itself. “A piece of live performance” was auctioned for the first time, announced the auction house proudly. Now Christie’s scores in the continuous run for premieres and sales records with dizzying sums.

Who defines what art is?

New is so-called generative art by no means. Already in the 1970s, artists experimented with automated processes and left machines to creative work. Time and again there have been AI works in art, music and literature. The concept of art is redefined every few generations, says Erin-Marie Wallace, whose company Rare-Era Appraisals appreciates works of art near Washington, to the radio station NPR. “We redefine what art is in the 21st century, and I think art is what people are willing to pay for.”

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