To restore “authority” over the use of their likeness, Emily Ratajkowski, the model and writer, coined a non-fungible token (NFT) that will be auctioned at Christie’s on May 14th. The piece is entitled “I’ll buy myself back: A model for redistribution. “

When Ms. Ratajkowski recorded in a widely read article published in The Cut last fall, she was surprised to find out in 2014 that a nude photo of herself was hanging in the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. As part of his “New Portraits” series, artist Richard Prince took one of her Instagram photos and printed it on a large canvas, priced at $ 90,000.

Ms. Ratajkowski tried to buy the piece, but a Gagosian employee bought it for herself. After contacting Mr. Prince’s studio directly, she was able to obtain a second “Instagram painting” of herself, which included a photo of her first appearance in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. She had paid $ 150 to shoot the shoot, she wrote, and a “couple great” when the issue was released. She and her boyfriend at the time bought the piece for $ 81,000; When they split, she paid her $ 10,000 for a smaller “study” that Mr. Prince’s studio had given her.

The image attached to the NFT is a digital composite of Ms. Ratajkowski, photographed in her New York apartment, posing in front of the Richard Prince painting that hangs in her Los Angeles home. (As a reminder, an unverifiable token is the metadata associated with the image file so that the file can be bought or sold like a physical work of art.)

Instead of a cash-based currency, NFTs are bought with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, and the transactions are permanently recorded in the blockchain of the respective currency, which works like a general ledger. Ms. Ratajkowski is using the OpenSea platform to add her NFT to the Ethereum blockchain, but her NFT is on sale in US dollars and the money transfer will be “out of chain,” a Christie spokeswoman said. There is no reserve or starting price for the piece.

In March, following the $ 69.3 million NFT sale of artist Beeple at Christie’s, talent agents encouraged their celebrity clients to participate in the NFT money heist, Ms. Ratajkowski said in an interview. Brands and cryptocurrency brokers contacted her directly, she said, offering her 20 to 60 percent of the profit on an NFT with her likeness. “I had this bad feeling in my stomach as I approached this,” she said, and decided to develop her own project based on another celebrity model, Kate Moss.

When Ms. Ratajkowski was browsing NFT marketplaces like OpenSea, Foundation and SuperRare, she came across GIFs and 3D renderings with smileys and thought, “Why are they NFTs? They don’t have to be NFTs. “

Since an NFT is less about the image itself and more about the concept of ownership of a digital file, Ms. Ratajkowski realized that the medium could be an effective way of making a statement about ownership – by appropriating hers Photos appropriated by Mr. Prince.

“As someone who built a career by sharing my image, so often – even though that is my livelihood – it is taken from me and then someone else benefits,” she said. Every time their NFT is resold, it receives an undisclosed cut. “For me, this digital marketplace is a way of communicating this specific idea that couldn’t be any other way.”

Mr. Prince, who has not responded to messages sent through Gagosian and his studio manager, has used the work of other artists in his own work since the 1980s and made a name for himself by taking photos of existing photos. His work has long been controversial, and Ms. Ratajkowski is not the first topic to be explored in the Instagram appropriation series “New Portraits”.

In 2015, Selena Mooney, the founder of the erotic website SuicideGirls, sold $ 90 copies of a piece by Mr. Prince that featured one of her Instagram posts. Proceeds went to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.

“If I had a nickel for every time someone used our images in a commercial endeavor without our permission, I could spend $ 90,000 on art,” Ms. Mooney wrote on Instagram. Another subject, sex educator Zoë Ligon, told Artnet she felt “hurt” by Mr. Prince’s use of her selfie in 2019.

According to The New York Times, Mr. Prince has been sued at least five times for copyright infringement related to the “New Portraits” series, including two high profile lawsuits from two photographers, Donald Graham and Eric McNatt. Mr. McNatt alleged that Mr. Prince misused a photo of Kim Gordon that he took for Paper Magazine. According to court records, he was paid between $ 50 and $ 100 to film it.

Art critic Jerry Saltz, who called New Portraits “Genius Trolling” in a review of 2014, worked with Kenny Schachter, an artist and Gadfly from the art world, in early April to create an NFT of the controversial Kim Gordon picture . Ms. Gordon stepped in and wrote that she wondered if Mr. McNatt “will sue you too?” on the Instagram post from Mr. Schachter.

Casey Reas, an artist and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied NFTs for the past five years, noted that they could be of particular concern to content creators whose images are so often replicated far beyond their control.

“With things in the physical, material world, ownership is pretty clear, but with digital files it’s always been a kind of fuzzy area,” he said. “With NFTs, a person can have clear public ownership of a digital thing such as an image or video.”

However, this media can still go viral. “The work itself is not scarce,” said Mr Reas. “That image can still be shared on the internet, but ownership is what the NFT allows someone to claim.” Like a physical painting, the original artist still retains the copyright; Unlike a physical painting, the original artist receives royalties every time an NFT changes hands.

There is another potential dividend for Ms. Ratajkowski: moral justice. She said that after her article was published, the models started discussing, “not just that their image is being used, but that their bodies are being abused and used for profit in ways they disagree with,” she said, one subject , which she is exploring in an upcoming collection of essays, “My Body,” which Metropolitan Books plans to publish in October. In fashion, film and the arts, she added, young women “feel like they’re not getting paid properly”.

And she said cryptocurrency experts warned her, “People are going to use your image in NFTs one way or another, so you can make one too.”