You can also watch the video version of this post here:
Memes are a rather recent form of digital art that spread virally via social media (especially on forums and Twitter). Despite their massive cultural impact, they ordinarily resulted in $0 financial gain for their creators.
The ‘broke celebrity’ phenomenon
Traditionally, if you were a successful meme creator, you lived the paradox that your face or creation was seen by hundreds or even millions of people daily, technically making you a celebrity, and yet you could still be struggling to pay your bills at the end of the month. I call this the broke celebrity phenomenon.
But this is a caricature, of course, as many of these creators weren’t poor by any means. Many could make a decent living from their day jobs and weren’t struggling to pay their bills. But it nevertheless hurt to be one of the internet’s most influential creators and in exchange make exactly $0 and get almost no authorial recognition.
Monetization at last
But this paradox is now coming to an end. And, once again, NFTs are the culprit. Because, like in so many other sectors, the paradigm-changing emergence of NFTs is also changing the rules of the game for meme creators. They can finally monetize their ubiquitous creations by selling an NFT-authenticated version of their memes. And they are doing so for astonishing amounts of money.
Below I have listed the 15 biggest meme NFT sales with a picture of the meme in question and some other transaction details. These memes are: Success Kid, Bad Luck Brian, Friendship ended with MUDASIR, Scumbag Steve, Keyboard Cat, Creepy Chan, Grumpy Cat, Side Eyeing Chloe, Creepy Chan II, Harambe the Gorilla, Disaster Girl, Overly Attached Girlfriend, Nyan Cat, and, the most expensive of them all, Doge.
But before moving into the meat of the list, I’ll mention a few patterns I’ve noticed.
All were sold in 2021
It’s interesting to note that all these meme sales took place in 2021. This, once again, shows how fledgling the NFT market is (which is not necessarily a bad thing for investors). Also, unlike other types of NFT such as crypto art, the current crypto market slump doesn’t seem to have affected this NFT category as much as other types of digital art. In fact, the biggest sale on the list (the Doge meme sale at $4 million) happened just a month ago, when we were right in the middle of the crypto market mini-crash.
All but one were sold on Foundation
Another interesting common trait is that Foundation seems to have the virtual monopoly of big sales in this category. 14 out of 15 sales on the list took place in that marketplace, with only one sale taking place in a competing marketplace. That exception was substantial, though, as it was the sale of Doge, which was sold on the Zora marketplace.
But this virtual monopoly of Foundation could simply be a coincidence. It might be due to the fact that the first high-profile meme sale (the Nyan Cat meme) took place on Foundation and that dragged the rest of the meme creators to that platform. Especially because, Chris Torres, the creator and seller of that first meme, was then instrumental in helping his fellow ‘memers’ sell theirs.
This primacy is also likely due to the savvy outreach team at Foundation. Chris Torres himself has said that the Foundation team contacted him blazingly fast when he mentioned on Twitter that he was thinking of selling Nyan Cat as an NFT. Also, later they collaborated with Torres to create the #Memeconomy event on the platform to allow other meme creators to easily sell their memes there.
It also doesn’t hurt that, unlike many of its competitors, Foundation has a very clean, and extremely easy-to-use user interface with a straightforward auction system. As you can tell, I’m a fan.
All sold on the Ethereum blockchain
More things to note. Out of the 17 memes on this list, only 3 are animated gifs (Nyan Cat and Keyboard Cat, and Coffin Dance) and the other 14 are static — 12 photographs and 1 drawing. Also, 17 out of 17 were transactions made using Ether (the Ethereum blockchain currency) as the means of payment. This is, in fact, unsurprising and similar to most other digital art sales which are currently mostly made on marketplaces built on the Ethereum blockchain.
Ok, so let’s dive now into the memes and their prices. For each sale, I’ve included a link to the actual sales page in case you want to see more details and the official blockchain record of the transaction. As for the prices, they were quoted in dollars very differently all over the internet. So, to present the most accurate price possible, I’ve converted the original ETH price to the equivalent value in dollars by using the ETH exchange rate on the same day the meme was actually sold.
Here are the 17 most expensive memes of all time:
17. ‘Success Kid’ — $32K
16. ‘Bad Luck Brian’ — $37K
15. ‘Friendship ended with MUDASIR’ — $51K
14. ‘Scumbag Steve’ — $54K
13. ‘Keyboard Cat’ — $65K
12. ‘Trollface’ — $70K
Price: 42 ETH (equivalent to $69,266 on the day of purchase)
Date: March 3, 2021
Buyer: @0_o (Anonymous)
Seller: Carlos Ramírez, ‘Whynne’
Artist and internet personality ‘Whynne’ was one of the first ‘memers’ to sell his NFT.
11. ‘Creepy Chan’ — $71K
10. ‘Grumpy Cat’ — $78K
9. ‘Side Eyeing Chloe’ — $78K
8. ‘Creepy Chan II’ — $81K
7. ‘Harambe’ — $86
6. ‘Why You Always Lying’ — $96K
Price: 25 ETH (equivalent to $96,085 on the day of purchase)
Date: October 18, 2021
Buyer: Andrew Kang “Formosa” (private collector, China)
Seller: Nicholas Fraser (the real Why You Always Lying guy)
5. ‘Disaster Girl’ — $403K
4. ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend’ — $419K
3. ‘Nyan Cat’ — $588K
1. ‘Coffin Dance (Dancing Pallbearers)’ — $1 Million
1. ‘Doge’ — $4 Million
And that’s it. Those are the 12 most expensive memes of all time. For now.
Not Quite Memes
There’s a number of expensive NFT sales reported by many outlets as meme NFT sales that I haven’t included on the list. The reason is that they are not true memes. One of them, for example, is a comic-book page featuring Pepe the Frog. Pepe has indeed been the protagonist of countless memes, but, strictly speaking, this comic-book page is not really a meme image (that is, the page wasn’t the actual image that people posted online when they used Pepe as a meme) so I’ve left it out.
Had it been included on the list, since it was sold for $3.4 million, it would have been the second most expensive NFT, surpassed only by Doge.
Another two NFTs that I haven’t included are the viral videos: ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ and ‘Leave Britney Alone.’ Although viral videos share many traits with memes and play similar roles in our culture, they are not exactly memes. A very short video GIF (like Nyan Cat, or Keyboard Cat) that can be included on any forum thread and that doesn’t have sound does qualify as a meme. But viral videos tend to be longer, have a soundtrack that is an integral part of their meaning, and are created primarily with the purpose of being consumed on a video watching platform and not to quickly convey an idea on a forum.
The Future of Meme NFTs
As with other types of NFTs, nobody knows what is going to happen with the value of meme NFTs in the medium and long term. But the longer they survive as an investment asset the likelier it is for them to become a permanent fixture. The value of NFTs is dependent on a human convention, and the longer humans agree that something has value, the more probable it is for that value to persist. (For example, gold as a material is much less useful than other metals, it has thus very limited real-world value, but since humans have agreed for many centuries that gold = money, the value of gold has become very stable and very unlikely to go to zero overnight. The same applies to any other consensus-dependent assets like NFTs — the longer they are considered valuable the more stable that value becomes).
And NFTs have already survived their first big ‘moment of truth’: the crypto market mini-crash of May 2021 (we are still in this mini-crash, by the way). During this mini-crash of the crypto sector, NFTs as a whole have shown significant resilience. Yes, the prices of many NFT categories are not as high as during the Mars/April 2021 mania, but they are doing better during this slump than other crypto assets.
In fact, as mentioned before, the largest meme NFT sale of all time took place precisely during the current slump: in June 2021, when the Doge meme sold for a fantastic 4 million dollars. So there are many reasons to be optimistic about the medium- and perhaps even longer-term prospects for this type of investment.
A Few Hands
However, it is also important to note that a handful of investors have had an extraordinary influence on meme prices, at least on the price of the big ones. 70% of the big meme sales listed here were made by just 3 individuals: Farzin Fardin Fard, Harry Jones, and Ian Lapham.
Farzin Fardin Fard, much better known as “3F Music“ is a businessman based in Dubai but born in Iran. He doesn’t work in anything related to crypto but is behind many of the most famous NFT purchases of 2021 (not only memes). Allegedly, he is making these headline-grabbing purchases to promote his Dubai recording studio (the studio’s website looks oddly ramshackle though for someone who is allegedly going to such lengths to promote it).
Harry Jones is an extremely young collector (in his early twenties) based in New York but born in the United Kingdom. Jones is heavily involved in the overall crypto space, being part of the small team behind the up-and-coming Polymarket betting app. Jones has stated that he really believes in the long-term potential of meme NFTs as investment assets and is even considering creating some type of meme fractional investment vehicle in the future.
As for Ian Lapham, he is a software engineer from the Uniswap team, so he is also directly involved professionally in the crypto space at large. Lapham has also made significant purchases of other types of crypto art, namely several works from the highest-priced NFT artist of them all, Beeple.
But irrespective of their backgrounds or goals, the fact that just a handful of collectors made most of these purchases makes it a bit more uncertain to know if these prices could be seen again in the future, should some of these actors leave the market.
It is also interesting that the largest meme NFT sale of all time, Doge, went to a pool of buyers instead of a single person. The buyer of Doge was a group of individuals known as PleasrDAO which, apart from this multi-million dollar meme, have also pool-purchased other significant art NFTs, as can be seen on their website.
Another potential source of investment risk in the meme niche is fakes. For example, at the same time that the above memes were being sold on Foundation by their rightful owners, a couple of scammers impersonated the creators of two famous memes (‘Coughing Cat’ and ‘Me Gusta’) and tried to sell them for big bucks. In the end, neither of these sales went through because the impostors were detected by the marketplace team before the auctions were over. But, if you don’t want to lose all your money, it is essential to be extra careful and ensure that the person selling a meme NFT to you is indeed its creator.
Can more NFTs of these memes be minted?
A final thing that would worry me if I were to spend a small fortune on a famous meme, is the possibility of the meme creator minting more NFTs of the same meme after I buy mine. In general, there is some sort of tacit agreement that this won’t happen. And sometimes the agreement is not tacit but explicit — Nyan Cat’s creator Christ Torres, for example, told The Verge that he “doesn’t plan to offer another of Nyan Cat’s original’ and many other meme sellers appear to have made similar commitments to their respective buyers. But how strong are these promises? And were they recorded as contracts?
However, this source of risk is not as worrying as the fakes. Even in the absence of explicit contracts guaranteeing that the creator will never sell another NFT of the same image, over time, I believe that the market may fix this issue spontaneously by not giving any value to any NFTs of a famous image minted after the first one.
But only time will tell for sure. In the meantime, it is always a good strategy to be extra cautious and try to protect your investment with a written agreement that specifies whether the seller is selling you a unique NFT and whether they will or will not sell more NFTs of that same meme in the future.
That’s all for now. I hope you find this review of the biggest meme NFT sales useful!