“Portrait of Edmond De Belamy,” which goes on sale at Christie’s today (Oct. 25), looks at a quick glance like the handiwork of some long dead Old Master. It’s a little smudged, maybe, but you can see it in the lightness of the brush strokes; the negative space around the edge of the canvas; the subtle chiaroscuro. This maestro knew what they were doing.
But looks can be deceiving. The picture of a man in a black shirt isn’t the work of any painter, living or dead. In fact, it isn’t the work of human hands at all. The clue is in the scrawl in the bottom corner: Not a signature, but a mathematical formula.
“Portrait of Edmond De Belamy” is the work of artificial intelligence, programmed by members of a Parisian art collective called Obvious—and the first algorithm-made artwork to go on auction in the world of fine art.
To produce the image, the team first fed 15,000 images of paintings from between the 14th and 20th centuries into an open-source generative adversarial network (GAN). This sort of neural network works in two parts: one generates the picture using the data available, and the other “discriminates,” essentially telling it whether it’s done a good job or whether the finished images are still obviously the work of a machine. It’s not clear exactly how many images the network shored up on the screen in total, but this is the one that won out. Obvious members then printed it on canvas, framed in gilt—and put it up for sale.
The question is: Will anyone buy it? Those in the relatively niche world of AI-generated art say they shouldn’t. The open source GAN is nothing new, and artists and critics alike told the New York Times that the group’s work was, essentially, irrelevant to the world of AI art. Some were still more damning: German artist Mario Klingemann, who regularly works with GANs, said his first reaction to the announcement of the auction was: “‘You can’t be serious.'” He compared the portrait “to a connect-the-dots children’s painting.” But Christie’s is banking on someone biting, all the same. It anticipates a final sale price of between $7,000 to $10,000. That’s small potatoes compared to the whopping $324,500 realized in the same auction for an Andy Warhol print, but in the same ball-park as the estimated price for a small etching by Pablo Picasso and a Chuck Close self-portrait (both part of a limited run of prints) due to go under the hammer at the same time, to name a couple.
A small number of art collectors have already dipped a trepidatious toe into the AI pool. In February, French collector Nicolas Laugero-Lasserre acquired another AI-generated work by Obvious for around $10,000. It now sits in his personal collection alongside works by such household (and human) art-world names as Banksy and Shepard Fairey. He simply fell in love with it, he said—surely the test for whether any art is worth its selling price, whatever its creator.