Portrait By AI Artist Sells for $432,500 At Christie’s

The portrait of a fictional person named Edmond Belamy was expected to bring only $7,000 to $10,000.

Christie's
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The portrait of a fictional person named Edmond Belamy was expected to bring only $7,000 to $10,000.

In late October 2018, a trio of artificial intelligence researchers became the first to sell an original work of computer-generated art on the world stage at Christie’s auction house in New York, and the art world is still reeling at the implications. The Paris-based Obvious art collective — founded by Pierre Fautrel, Hugo Caselles-Dupre, and Gauthier Vernier — used a method called a “Generative Adversarial Network” (GAN) to create 10 canvas-based portraits of the fictional Belamy family in a show called “La Famille de Belamy.” The portrait entitled Edmond de Belamy was expected to bring $7,000 to $10,000 at auction, but when the gavel fell, that number was $432,500, more than 40 times the expected sale price, according to CNN.

To create the portrait, the three members of Obvious exposed their artificial intelligence algorithm to 15,000 different portraits from 600 years throughout history, from the 14th through the 20th centuries. The AI analyzed each piece, looking for common features, and then began creating artwork of its own, trying to mimic the common facial and body structures that it had been exposed to. That aspect of the algorithm is known as the Generator, according to Christie’s. After a piece has been generated, it is paired with a similar piece of human-generated artwork and a second aspect of the algorithm called the Discriminator then tries to determine which was created by the Generator. The pieces that the Discriminator fails to identify as AI-created are then considered to be successful pieces.

Although computer-generated artwork has sold at auction before, it has never sold for an amount anywhere close to the $432,500 brought by Edmond de Belamy, nor has it sold at an auction house as prestigious as Christie’s before now. Christie’s is enthusiastic about the development, though. The international head of prints and multiples at the auction house, Richard Lloyd, spoke ahead of the event.

“AI has already been incorporated as a tool by contemporary artists and as this technology further develops, we are excited to participate in these continued conversations. To best engage in the dialogue, we are offering a public platform to exhibit an artwork that has entirely been realized by an algorithm.”

Rather than signing the piece with their names, the three members of Obvious chose to have the AI sign the work in cursive with a partial formula from its own algorithm: “min G max D x [log (D(x))] + z [log(1 – D (G(z)))].” That decision, in itself, is controversial, because it points to the heart of a new concern: attribution. Was the art created by the algorithm, or by the people who created the algorithm?