Meet the Singapore-based crypto investor who bought a S$93m artwork
Vignesh Sundaresan was born in Chennai but now lives partly in Singapore’s Little India, which he chose for its access to South Indian food. Here, the entrepreneur shares his cryptocurrency journey, including how he made his high-profile art purchase.
It was almost a decade ago that Vignesh Sundaresan, googling for ways to transfer funds directly between stock brokerage accounts, chanced on an alternative to the conventional banking system. “I was like, can I just move money between two parties? And then bitcoin came up randomly on a forum,” the 32-year-old entrepreneur recalled.
So enraptured was Sundaresan by this new tool that he quit his job in Chennai as a technology consultant for The Hindu newspaper and started working on a cryptocurrency business idea. Sundaresan’s journey into the “cryptosphere” would go on to involve investments in multiple digital coins; the launch of several businesses in different countries; the creation of his own digital avatar; and, eventually, his most high-profile investment yet, the US$69.3m (S$93m) purchase from Christie’s of Everydays: The First 5,000 Days.
This collage by US artist Beeple is the first purely digital work stored in a non-fungible token (NFT) to be sold by a major auction house and in March set the third-highest price for a living artist at auction, shaking the art world to its core.
For some, the Beeple NFT represents nothing more than a speculative bubble, part of a wider concern around get-rich-quick schemes linked to crypto markets. For others, it is a historic challenge to the gatekeepers who have traditionally determined the monetary and cultural value of art, leaving collectors, museums and auction houses guessing whether NFTs – non-duplicable tokens secured with blockchain technology that have been described as digital certificates of authenticity – will ultimately generate a new market for digital art among younger buyers. Bidders under the age of 40 accounted for 64 per cent of offers for the Beeple NFT.
For Sundaresan, art has a ripple effect that ultimately “defines the norm of society”. The Beeple NFT, he said, “made the whole world think of looking at it, trying to understand the stupidity or the cleverness or whatever behind it . . . that is the power of art in general. And that [power] being given to an NFT is history.”
Born in the Tamil Nadu capital Chennai and raised in Hosur, a small city in the southern Indian state, Sundaresan is usually based in Singapore. But as I joined our video interview, I had no idea where he would be calling from.
After some fidgeting with cameras and microphones on both ends, he greets me with a large, boyish smile from Chennai, the city to which he moved in his teenage years and where he returned in April to visit his mother. He was welcomed with a surprise party to celebrate the Beeple NFT acquisition, not the first for Sundaresan but definitely the largest. “My mom had made this whole thing [a] celebration, [with] my friends . . . they had the lights on . . . they had decorated outside the home.”
But the celebratory atmosphere was cut short after Sundaresan caught COVID-19 amid the devastating second wave of cases now ripping through India. “It’s very hard to right now avoid it,” he said. “Luckily I was with my mom [who had been vaccinated], so she took care of me and is still taking care of me right now.”
With food delivery disrupted amid COVID-19 chaos, Sundaresan’s mother has also prepared his lunch today, and he brightens as he walks me through a selection of southern Indian dishes that look delicious even through a grainy video feed: Brinjal kathirikai poriyal (eggplant stir-fry), ponni rice, udupi rasam (a very spicy broth), maavadu (small pickled mango) and curd served in silver bowls arranged on a matching tray.
I look down at the dumplings and greens I ordered from Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese restaurant known for its xiao long bao (soup dumplings). Though an ardent Din Tai Fung fan, my lunch in plastic boxes just cannot compare.
While chatting, I notice crypto-themed artwork behind him, including a combination of currency symbols with bitcoin at its centre (because “bitcoin is currency too”, Sundaresan says), as well as a large US dollar bill on which George Washington is replaced by the face of Dorian Nakamoto – a man misidentified as and for a while widely believed to be Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator.
“[The Beeple NFT] made the whole world think of looking at it, trying to understand the stupidity or the cleverness or whatever behind it .”
STARTING OUT IN DUBAI
The rejection of hierarchical systems defined by financial power, race, entrenched privilege and social class is a leitmotif that dominates our long, at times digressive conversation.
One of the first anecdotes Sundaresan shares about growing up in Hosur tells of an uncomfortable interaction with an Indian relative who had moved to the US. “They thought I have to change or have to become something else in order to gain their respect,” he said. “[But] even in my childhood I used to always think we should never play other people’s games.”
He took his first steps as an entrepreneur in Dubai, where he attended university after his mother took a loan from a relative. Sundaresan describes this period – with little money, living in hostels and reading for a mechanical engineering degree he had no interest in – as “one of the hardest” in his life.
But Dubai was also where he launched his first start-up, a web service that acted as a middleman between Twitter users and advertisers in the website’s early days. He built this using coding he first started learning as a child when his mother enrolled him for a computer course she had spotted on posters in Hosur. “Mom is the person who always pushed me,” he said.
“What I am good at is sensing a trend.”
Sundaresan’s start-up eventually sold for US$8,000, 10 times what it earned him in a month. This kickstarted a string of business launches and investments driven by his enthusiasm to spot – and capitalise on – new technologies. “What I am good at is sensing a trend,” he explained.
As Sundaresan entered the crypto industry, he created an avatar that ensured anonymity for years – until the Christie’s auction. With his mother, he named it Metakovan, which can be partially translated from Tamil to mean king of the “metaverse”.
His move to Canada sealed his entry into the crypto world. He travelled on a student visa with no intention of studying, he tells me with a smile. The aim was to expand his cryptocurrency escrow service start-up, Coins-e, which he ultimately sold in 2014 after realising he was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. “My professor was like, what is your AML [anti-money laundering] policy? And I was like, what is AML policy? . . . From India I had no idea about AML, all these actual real-world things.”
More than an hour has gone by and, despite my urgings, Sundaresan has barely touched his food. He presses on instead, telling me about a bitcoin ATM prototype he built in 2014, which ultimately grew into a business, Bitaccess. After that came the investment of the bitcoin equivalent of US$5,000 in the ethereum initial coin offering, which led to the creation of ether – a token that would go on to become a major digital coin, used for the acquisition of the Beeple NFT.
RELOCATING TO SINGAPORE
As Canada became one of the first countries to tighten its crypto regulation – in recent weeks both China and the US have signalled their intention to increase oversight – Sundaresan moved in 2018 to Singapore, which won out over Switzerland for its culinary offerings. “Every morning I need South Indian food,” he tells me, chuckling. “I live in a condo but it is in [the Singapore neighbourhood of] Little India”.
When he finally embarks on his own lunch almost two hours into our conversation, Sundaresan says his mother has prepared it in a special way. “I wish you could have tasted this . . . [She is in a] very good mood. I can taste it in the food.”
The relocation to Singapore coincided with Sundaresan’s growing interest in NFTs, whose prices have surged in the years since, along with those of cryptocurrencies. Despite the sell-off – and subsequent clawback – triggered last month by Chinese regulators signalling a crackdown on the use of digital coins, the price of bitcoin has more than quadrupled during the past 12 months.
Just last month, an NFT of the original viral video known as Charlie Bit My Finger, with nearly 900m views on YouTube, was bought for US$760,999. The sports industry has also joined the craze, with US football star Megan Rapinoe among a group of female athletes issuing NFTs of unique digital collectible cards.
Sundaresan ultimately founded Metapurse, which claims to be the world’s largest NFT fund and is jointly run with Anand Venkateswaran, a former colleague from The Hindu.
I ask Sundaresan what he makes of suggestions that NFT prices such as the one he paid are fuelling a speculative bubble. “When someone pays US$400m for a physical piece of art, people laugh at that too. It’s not just NFTs,” Sundaresan said, adding he is only interested in tokens in which he sees value. (The world’s most expensive artwork, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, sold for a record US$450m in 2017.)
“Every morning I need South Indian food. I live in a condo but it is in Little India.”
Hype is inevitable, he said, which is why “everyone should be careful and understand what you are buying”. Nonetheless, he believes having a free market determine NFT prices ultimately makes them legitimate.
The Beeple NFT consolidated Sundaresan’s status as a major crypto investor. He will not confirm the size of his wealth, saying only that the token’s price is “much less” than 10 per cent of his net worth.
But for him, the NFT’s real value may have little to do with finance. In an online post penned with Venkateswaran and published after the auction, they wrote the acquisition “added a dash of mahogany” to a palette of investors, financiers and patrons of the arts that “10 times out of nine . . . is monochrome”. The purchase, they wrote, showed “crypto was an equalising power between the West and the Rest, and that the global south was rising”.
I ask him if today’s financial markets are steeped in fundamentally imperialist structures. “Definitely, definitely!” he said, pulling his hair back, a move that seems characteristic when he is making a point.
“If you’re a Stanford dropout and a white person and you’re starting a company . . . and you have a decent idea, money is not your problem,” he said of Silicon Valley. Founders are therefore interested in what investors can offer beyond capital. If you try to offer US$100,000 to a start-up raising US$1m, “they’ll be like, ‘No, no, we are oversubscribed’, because what they are thinking is: ‘What connections can this guy make?’”
While hardship may be suffered irrespective of skin colour, “the problem is there is a higher probability for a white person to have a better social network compared to me, because I am the first person in my whole social network to have reached my position”, he said.
“Once I understand this, I go around it. Now, why will I become Metakovan? Why will I buy Beeple? Because of all of this. Now everyone wants me in the cap table,” he said, referring to the spreadsheet of investors commonly used by start-ups. “That’s how much I have to do, this circus stunt, to be part of cap tables because that’s the kind of people they want in the cap table.” Sundaresan mimes avoiding obstacles with his hands. “It’s historic . . . we cannot change that. We just have to figure out ways to bypass that.”
HOW CRYPTOCURRENCIES LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD
For Sundaresan, cryptocurrencies are a meritocratic financial tool that have allowed him to do just this. “Even today I don’t know anyone who’s traditionally rich . . . Without them having to anoint me as a rich person, I’ve become rich, so I think that’s very powerful.”
Having an avatar also helped him circumvent the status quo, he said. “It removed all the judgments and put my work [first] before people could meet me or judge me . . . maybe they thought I was white, I don’t know.”
While financial fortunes “perpetuating privilege” is inevitable, Sundaresan says he wants to use his wealth consciously. To that end, he says that apart from Beeple, he is buying “hundreds of [NFTs by] artists from around the world” who would otherwise not be represented by traditional galleries. Some of the digital art has been displayed in virtual museums, with the aim to increase their reach across the globe.
“I want to build museums for people like me . . . someone from my town can now visit a URL and experience a narrative,” said Sundaresan. “[This is] the new distribution medium.”
The initiative, however, has drawn some criticism. Before the US$69.3m Beeple acquisition, Sundaresan had bought other work by the artist, the ownership of which was split up and sold in the form of tokens called B.20, together with ownership of the virtual museums and the land on which they are built.
A public sale started in January at US$0.36 per B.20. About 59 per cent of tokens were allocated to Sundaresan, while two per cent were given to Beeple. Critics allege Sundaresan may have benefited from the US$69.3m purchase as the price of B.20 soared throughout the Christie’s auction, peaking at nearly US$30 on March 11, the day the bidding closed, according to CoinMarketCap. Tokens are now trading at about US$1.
“Even today I don’t know anyone who’s traditionally rich . . . Without them having to anoint me as a rich person, I’ve become rich, so I think that’s very powerful.”
A Metapurse spokesperson said Sundaresan did not benefit financially from the B.20 price jump because he never sold any of his shares. As for Beeple’s B.20 stake, the spokesperson said it was allocated “out of good faith to the artist”, adding that he was “unaware that Metakovan was planning on bidding on the [Everydays: The First 5,000 Days] piece, and all bidders were completely anonymous”.
Sundaresan’s only moment of melancholy linked to the Beeple purchase comes when discussing the loss of anonymity that came with it. “I was sad for a while . . . Metakovan was dead. Imagine another year of this pseudonymity, I could have done so many other things”.
His grin is back quickly, however, when I ask if he will sell the token. “I will actually never sell it,” he replied. “It’s the NFT that changed the world. You cannot put a number to it.”
Just a few hours after our chat, bitcoin plummets as much as 30 per cent to a low of US$30,101, before mitigating its daily losses, dragging down other cryptocurrencies and related stocks with it.
I think back to Sundaresan telling me he is not a day trader: “They say buy low, sell high. It’s never possible.” His investment strategy has been to move in and out of digital coins according to the newest technology he believes in – the latest including Polkadot, Flow and Dfinity, his biggest earners in dollar terms. “I will stay with it for two, three years, at least,” he said. “If that technology fails, I die with it . . . I’ll make a decision to come out of it even at a loss.”
By that theory, Sundaresan would have done just one thing these past few weeks. Hold.
LARGEST SUMS PAID AT AUCTION FOR WORK OF LIVING ARTISTS
Original price US$91.1m
Year sold 2019
Art Rabbit by Jeff Koons
Original price US$90.3m
Year sold 2018
Art Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by David Hockney
Original price US$69.3m
Year sold 2021
Art Everydays: The First 5,000 Days by Mike Winkelmann (Beeple)
Original price US$58.4m
Year sold 2013
Art Balloon Dog (Orange) by Jeff Koons
Original price US$52.5m
Year sold 2019
Art Hurting the Word Radio #2 by Ed Ruscha
By Stefania Palma © 2021 The Financial Times