Selling Invisible Art Is Fraud | Opinion

An Italian visual artist recently sold an invisible sculpture for over $18,000. In other words, an artist sold something that doesn't exist for real money. There is even a Snopes write-up confirming the authenticity of this bizarre story that garnered national headlines.

This transaction is dishonest and deeply troubling. Auction houses should not allow people to sell something that does not exist.

The recent non-fungible tokens (NFTs) craze may be wildly irrational, especially the $69.3 million piece auctioned on Christie's, but NFTs are verifiable digital assets traded on blockchain technology. It's not invisible and non-existent; it's a digital asset like cryptocurrency. It may be worth nothing one day and is a highly speculative investment, but the consumer knows what they are buying.

There is precedent for people trying to sell immaterial things.

People have tried to auction their souls on eBay. The e-commerce website promptly shut down those attempts because the sellers can't deliver what they are promising. eBay also explained another reason why it forbids soul selling, stating "if the soul does exist then, in accordance with eBay's policy on human parts and remains, we would not allow the auctioning of human souls."

Woman walks in front of digital painting
A woman walks in front of a digital painting by Chinese artist Liu Gang (back) at a crypto art exhibition. NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

Auction houses should consider adopting policies similar to eBay prohibiting the sale of "intangible items or anything a buyer can't confirm that they've received." You can't confirm receiving something invisible that doesn't actually exist.

While many people believe the soul exists, selling the "invisible art" sculpture was blatant fraud because it indisputably doesn't exist despite the "certificate of authenticity" the artist provided to dupe the buyer into proving that the "air and spirit" sculpture is real.

The sculpturist defended his art claiming that, "After all, don't we shape a God we've never seen?" The problem with that analogy is that no one is selling God and even psychics selling fortune-telling services aren't claiming to be selling something tangible. A sculpture isn't metaphysical, God is.

Several years ago, people fell for radio parodists Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring's hoax that the invisible art of Lana Newstrom was selling for millions of dollars. Unfortunately, invisible art sales are no longer a hoax, so perhaps auction houses should protect gullible consumers from getting conned.

Eli Federman has written for Reuters, Time, New York Post, Daily News and elsewhere on religion, culture and law. Follow him on Twitter @EliFederman and Facebook.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.