Until recently, nonfungible tokens (NFTs) were written off by many as a virtual fad and a waste of money. After all, why would someone pay $2.9 million to own the very first tweet when anyone with internet access can view it for free?
But when auction house Christie's sold the NFT of Everydays: The First 5000 Days, a collage by the artist Beeple, for $69.3 million in March 2021, it suddenly put this emerging asset class on par with collecting a Picasso (whose heirs have jumped on the digital bandwagon by selling NFTs of the artist's ceramics).
So, what's all the fuss about?
Like cryptocurrencies, NFTs are stored on a blockchain, which is a digital, publicly available transaction ledger. However, while a single bitcoin can be exchanged for any other bitcoin—just as a $1 bill can be exchanged for any other $1 bill—each NFT is unique (i.e., nonfungible). In that sense, NFTs are more like the Hope Diamond or Picasso's Guernica—a one-of-a-kind work for which there is no substitute.
Indeed, an NFT's inherent scarcity, whether because it's a unique piece of art or a limited-issue collectible, makes it potentially lucrative—but also substantially less liquid than, say, your average stock or bond. As a result, you may need to drop the price or hold on to your NFT if the demand isn't there when you want or need to sell it. Other risks include:
- Security: Like bitcoin, NFTs require a private key that functions as a password. If your key is lost or stolen, you may never again be able to access your NFT. Other security risks involve replicas that purport to be the original—as with any collectibles marketplace—and fraudulent sites designed to steal private keys and their attendant assets.
- Taxation: Although the IRS has yet to issue specific guidance, NFTs are generally treated as collectibles. As such, if you sell an NFT you've held on to for less than a year, any short-term gains will be taxed as ordinary income. Any gains on an NFT held for a year or longer will be taxed at a top collectibles rate of 28%—plus a 3.8% net investment income tax if your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $200,000 ($250,000 for married couples).
Where to start
If, after careful consideration, you're still interested in dipping your toe in NFT waters, you'll first need to do three things:
- Pick a marketplace: To buy or sell NFTs, you'll need to choose a reputable marketplace. Both Nifty Gateway and OpenSea are popular, although specialty marketplaces also exist, including ArtOfficial if you're a fine-art collector and NBA Top Shot for basketball enthusiasts.
- Get a wallet: Shopping through most NFT marketplaces requires a Web3 wallet, such as MetaMask, that can store both cryptocurrencies and NFTs. Some marketplaces, like Nifty Gateway, will store your NFT, but you'll have to pay a fee to transfer it to another wallet should you wish to do so later.
- Buy cryptocurrency: Some marketplaces accept payment in so-called fiat currencies, such as the U.S. dollar. However, many marketplaces are built on the Ethereum blockchain and prefer to transact in its native cryptocurrency, ether.
Tread with caution
Although the popularity of NFTs has exploded in the past year, with first-quarter sales topping $11 billion by mid-March 2022—up from $53 million for the fourth quarter of 2020—only time will tell if NFTs will realize their long-term potential or fall tragically short of it.
Either way, it will be fascinating to see how this new form of digital authentication changes how we invest. (Ernst & Young, for example, is working on NFT-inspired technology that can help collectors track the provenance of fine wines.)
Sales figures include only on-chain transactions conducted on the 49 NFT marketplaces that DappRadar tracks, excluding LooksRare.
*Q1 2022 data as of 03/25/2022.
For the time being, however, there's a lot to be said for taking a go-slow approach to this new asset class and all the risks it entails.
In general, those interested in crypto assets like NFTs are wise to limit their exposure to no more than 1% of investable assets.