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Why Coinbase’s IPO Is a Cryptocurrency Coming-Out Party

SAN FRANCISCO — Digital currency, once mocked as a tool for criminals and reckless speculators, is sliding into the mainstream.

Traditional banks are helping investors put their money into cryptocurrency funds. Companies like Tesla and Square are hoarding Bitcoin. And celebrities are leading the way in a digital-art spending spree using a technology called an NFT.

On Wednesday, digital or cryptocurrencies will take their biggest step yet toward wider acceptance when Coinbase, a start-up that allows people to buy and sell cryptocurrencies, goes public on Nasdaq. Coinbase shares received a reference price of $250 each on Tuesday evening, which would value the company at $65 billion based on all its outstanding shares.

Call it crypto’s coming-out party. Coinbase, founded in San Francisco, is the first major cryptocurrency start-up to go public on a U.S. stock market. It is doing so at a valuation that tops that of Capital One Financial Corporation or Moody’s, the ratings agency.

plan to “create an open financial system for the world” and “increase economic freedom.”

But so far, cryptocurrency is mostly a vehicle for financial speculation and trading. Few people want to use Bitcoin for everyday purchases like coffee because its price is so volatile. Many early buyers have become wildly rich by simply holding their crypto or “buying the dip” when prices fall. Others ruefully relay tales of the sushi dinner they bought with Bitcoin years ago that would be worth $200,000 today or the million-dollar pizza.

Coinbase eases that trading by acting as a central exchange. Before it and similar services were created, people had to set up their own digital wallets and wire money.

“Can it be anything more than an asset class?” Mr. Tusk asked. “That’s still very much up in the air.”

Silk Road, a marketplace for buying and selling drugs and weapons with Bitcoin until the federal authorities shut it down, and Mt. Gox, a crypto exchange that collapsed under accusations of theft and embezzlement, further tarnished the young industry.

Coinbase tried to change that. The company joined Y Combinator, a prestigious start-up program, and raised money from top venture capital firms including Union Square Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.

Mr. Armstrong was one of the few people in the industry who seemed prepared to comply with inevitable regulations, rather than cut corners to avoid them, said Nick Tomaino, who dropped out of business school to join Coinbase in 2013.

Coinbase also persuaded well-known retailers to accept Bitcoin. “It was good for credibility when people saw you could actually use a Bitcoin to buy a mattress at Overstock,” Mr. Tomaino, who left in 2016, said. Coinbase earned money on transaction fees.

But Bitcoin’s wildly volatile price and a slow computer network that managed it made transactions difficult, and people began to see the currency as an investment. In 2015, Ethereum, a cryptocurrency network with more tech abilities, was introduced, enticing enthusiasts to build companies and funds around the technology.

Soon after, a flood of “initial coin offerings,” where companies sold tokens on the promise of the technology they planned to build, created a new boom in cryptocurrency trading. But it quickly deflated after many projects were found to be frauds and U.S. regulators deemed the offerings to be securities, requiring that they comply with financial rules.

Tesla to buy $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin and the payments company Square to spend $170 million. In March, Morgan Stanley began offering its wealthy clients access to three Bitcoin funds, and Goldman announced that it would soon offer similar access. The mayor of Miami has proposed that the city accept tax payments in Bitcoin and invest city funds in the asset.

The stock trading app Robinhood announced that 9.5 million of its customers had traded cryptocurrency in the first three months of the year — up more than fivefold from the previous three months. Venture funding for crypto-related start-ups surged to its highest-ever level in the first quarter to $3 billion, according to PitchBook.

PayPal recently added a crypto trading and shopping feature for its customers in the United States. The company was motivated by consumer interest and advances in the technology that made transactions faster. It plans to quickly expand the offering to customers around the world.

“It feels like the time is right,” said Jose Fernandez da Ponte, head of PayPal’s blockchain, crypto and digital currencies group. “We think this has the potential to revolutionize payments and financial systems in general.”

Still, the so-called revolution faces some challenges. Coinbase has sometimes struggled to keep up with demand, with some customers who lost access to their accounts complaining that the company has been unresponsive. It has also received criticism for its treatment of female and Black employees.

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has threatened harsher regulation of the currencies, including limiting their use.

And a big drop in prices could again send speculators fleeing. In its financial prospectus, Coinbase warned that its business results would fluctuate with the volatility of crypto assets, “many of which are unpredictable and in certain instances are outside of our control.”

The industry’s biggest issue — fulfilling the promise that the technology is more than just a place to park money — could take another decade to play out.

“There’s no doubt we’re in the latest boom, and I don’t know if that’s going to turn tomorrow or two years from now,” Mr. Tomaino said. “But the busts and booms are always higher than the last.”

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Are NFT Purchases Real? The Dollars Are.

Is his art real, I asked? He said he provides his buyers with physical screens with his works on them, so that’s kind of real, maybe.

Then he held up his phone and showed me an app that summarized his personal financial assets: At that moment, they included $56,635,781.41 in cash. He had received his payment in cryptocurrency, and immediately converted it into what I still think of as real money. The digital artist had transformed most of his new wealth into something I could understand: U.S. dollars.

But those dollars on his screen are a digital representation, too! “It’s not like I have 56 million dollar bills in my house,” he said, waving his hands to show the lack of stacks of bills. “I just have a number; you and I know this number is as real as anything else.”

In the world of modern art, it’s common for people to look at an abstract piece and say, “My kid could do that!” But, he said, “I’m pretty sure a kid couldn’t do what I do,” and showed me one of his pieces. It depicted a big sphere, and the image also contained a mountain and, by the way, a goat, among other elements, that he used digital trickery to manipulate, resize and juggle. The process was playful, but it also had something more, a guiding sensibility. Something that felt like — I might as well say it — art.

Besides, he asked me, what’s the inherent value of a baseball card? “You paid this much money for a little piece of cardboard?” he asked. “Even a painting. It’s just a piece of stretched fabric with some splotches of paint on it. Why would you pay for that?”

Did I mention that an NFT of a cat with a Pop-Tart body that leaves a trail of rainbows recently sold for nearly $600,000?

He had me wondering whether anything is real, and whether we’re not all just living in a consensual illusion.

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¿Por qué alguien pagó 560.000 dólares por una imagen de mi columna?

“A las personas de mi generación, que crecieron en la década de 1970, les encantará coleccionar libros de primera edición, novelas como el Ulises de James Joyce”, escribió en un correo electrónico. “Lo que las cripto y los NFT abrieron es la propiedad de los derechos para decir que uno posee tal cosa, ya sea tangible o intangible, en una forma que miles, si no es que millones, pueden ver y rastrear en tiempo real, en cualquier parte del mundo”.

André Allen Anjos, un artista de música electrónica de Portland, Oregón, que ofreció 5,69 etheres (cerca de 9200 dólares) por el NFT, me dijo en una entrevista telefónica que pujar por el token tal vez se podría considerar como un gesto simbólico de agradecimiento hacia mí y el Times de parte de la criptocomunidad por, sobre todo, tomarlos con la suficiente seriedad como para hacer un experimento con nuestra propia venta de tokens.

“Es como si una publicación convencional intentara interactuar con nosotros como comunidad de una manera real y sincera”, señaló. “Yo quería dar a entender que esto es fabuloso, que están planteando las preguntas correctas”.

Anjos mencionó que había crecido en la era de Napster, cuando los músicos se dieron cuenta de que internet podría destruir su modo de subsistencia al facilitar la reproducción de canciones de manera gratuita. Comentó que la tecnología de cadenas de bloques había cambiado eso al poder crear objetos coleccionables de edición limitada timbrados con el sello digital de su procedencia. Anjos mencionó que la idea de coleccionar los NFT no era tanto poseer las piezas en sí (la mayoría de las cuales pueden descargarse de manera gratuita de internet, pero sin las firmas criptográficas especiales), sino más bien demostrar confianza en este nuevo modelo de adquisición.

“No voy a llamarlo protesta, pero es una declaración”, afirmó. “Este es el criptomundo intentando probar que existimos; nos interesa revolucionar este modelo y estamos dispuestos a invertir nuestro dinero en eso”.

No todos los motivos de los postores eran tan nobles. Sterling Crispin, investigador de Apple que tiene otro trabajo como artista de NFT, mencionó que había ofrecido 4125 etheres (cerca de 6700 dólares) por mi token porque tenía en puerta una presentación virtual y esperaba que la puja atrajera algo de publicidad.

“Dije, bueno, estoy a punto de emitir un NFT para esta presentación en solitario”, comentó. “Valdría muchísimo la pena que aparecieran cuatro etheres en el Times”.

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Why Did Someone Pay $560,000 for a Picture of My Column?

$98,000.

$143,000.

$277,000.

After more than 30 bids, the auction ended at 12:32 p.m. Eastern time, with a winning bid of 350 Ether, or about $560,000. A few minutes later, after the auction platform had taken its cut, nearly $500,000 in cryptocurrency landed in my digital wallet. I was stunned. Congratulatory texts and media requests started pouring in. My colleagues joked about stiffing the charity and slipping off to the Cayman Islands. My editor said I shouldn’t expect a raise.

The whole ordeal was surreal, and it raised the question: Why would anyone spend the price of a high-end Lamborghini on a picture of my words? After all, the NFT was just a cryptographic signature linked to an image of a column that anyone could read on The Times’s website, albeit with a few bonus perks. (I also stipulated that I would feature the winner’s name and photo in a follow-up column, and Michael Barbaro, the host of “The Daily,” gamely agreed to throw in a voice message for the winner.)

The winner, whose handle on the auction site was @3fmusic, appeared to be a prominent NFT collector. The profile on the site was linked to a Twitter profile belonging to a Dubai-based music production company, and to an Instagram account identified as that of Farzin Fardin Fard, the company’s chief executive. The user’s NFT collection included a variety of other expensive digital works, including a $14,000 “emoji portrait” of the musician Billie Eilish and a $8,000 piece titled “Jumping Spider enjoying coffee in the morning.”

I reached out to @3fmusic to offer my congratulations on the purchase and to discuss the bid. They (it’s not clear if the winner is Mr. Fard or some other individual or multiple people) declined to be named — and, because of the pseudonymous nature of blockchain-based transactions, there’s no easy way for me to identify them beyond the information they volunteered — but they sent me a statement over Twitter direct message that read:

“We are already involved in art and media for a long time now,” the message read. “Our management team is always in cooperation with some highly knowledgeable and experienced art advisers who believe that we must grow with technological movements that help us to not only promote our business but also to support artists and the art market. Thus, we have proudly decided to dedicate sufficient funds and resources to invest in NFT as pioneers of this industry.”

They also gave me permission to include an image of their music studio’s logo in this column.

Jiannan Ouyang, an NFT collector who dropped out of the auction after a high bid of 290 Ether (about $469,000), told me that he had decided to bid on my NFT for both personal and professional reasons. He’s a former Facebook research scientist who is now a blockchain entrepreneur, and he’s married to a journalist.

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Buy This NFT Column on the Blockchain!

Foundation makes minting an NFT easy, but adding it to the Ethereum blockchain can be expensive. It requires paying a “gas fee” — a kind of congestion tax that is based on how busy the network is — and listing my token required two transactions: one to mint the token and another to generate the code that runs the auction. These days, gas fees to create a single NFT can exceed $100, although many are closer to $50.

The next step was to list my new NFT for sale. I set the minimum acceptable price of the auction at 0.5 Ether, or about $850 at today’s exchange rate. The auction will run for 24 hours after the reserve price is met, though more time gets added if people bid in the last 15 minutes. After a winner is named, the token will be automatically transferred to that person’s Ethereum wallet. I will transfer the proceeds to the Neediest Cases Fund (minus the 15 percent cut that Foundation takes and any costs associated with the donation).

In addition to selling the token, many NFT sellers add perks. Kings of Leon, for example, are sending a limited-edition vinyl album to people who buy their NFTs, and giving buyers of a special “golden ticket” NFT free concert tickets for life.

I don’t have concert tickets to offer, but I did want to sweeten the deal. So here’s what you’ll get if you win this NFT auction:

The biggest perk of all, of course, is owning a piece of history. This is the first article in the almost 170-year history of The Times to be distributed as an NFT, and if this technology proves to be as transformational as its fans predict, owning it might be tantamount to owning NBC’s first TV broadcast or AOL’s first email address.

Of course, that’s far from a guarantee. NFTs could turn out to be a passing fad that is feeding a speculative bubble — the digital equivalent of Beanie Babies — and your investment could turn out to be worthless.

But if they stick around, NFTs could transform the way digital goods are created, consumed and traded online. Some news organizations, including Quartz and The Associated Press, have already experimented with selling NFTs, and YouTubers and other online influencers have begun creating their own lines of cryptomerchandise.

Some of the NFT buzz is shallow hype, no doubt. The cryptocurrency world is full of scammers and get-rich-quick hustlers whose projects often end in failure. (Remember the initial coin offering boom?) And critics point out that NFTs and other cryptocurrency-related projects require enormous amounts of energy and computing power, making them a growing environmental hazard. There are also legitimate questions about what, exactly, NFT buyers are getting for their money, and whether these tokens will turn into broken links if the marketplaces and hosting services that store the underlying files disappear.

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Coinbase Users Say Crypto Start-Up Ignored Their Pleas for Help

“Coinbase, by going public and being subject to greater regulatory oversight, is moving more into the light where there is, or will be, greater visibility and comfort,” she said.

One of Coinbase’s most frustrating aspects, some users said, is that a real person does not appear to be reading their complaints.

“There’s nobody on the other side,” said Cheryl Hung, a marketing consultant in Los Angeles.

Ms. Hung said she and her fiancé, Paul Hwang, started investing in cryptocurrencies in 2019 and picked Coinbase because it was a “big, reputable company” with security. But in January, someone stole $26,000 of cryptocurrencies from their account. They said they did not have any idea of how that happened.

“We just lost all the money we could have been using to work on a house or move our life forward,” Mr. Hwang said.

The couple asked Coinbase for help, but they said they received perfunctory email responses. Trying Coinbase’s phone line got an automated response. After The Times inquired about their case, Ms. Hung said they got another email from the company with more information about their account.

Coinbase said real customer support agents respond to inquiries.

For most Coinbase users, legal recourse is also limited. Under the company’s terms of service, users agree to settle disputes through private arbitration or small claims court, rather than pursuing a class-action lawsuit.

That did not deter Mr. Pierre from suing. Mr. Pierre, who worked for Coinbase between 2017 and 2018, said he initially found the decentralized format of digital currencies “exciting.” But after he lost his Coinbase savings, he said he saw the value in traditional, regulated institutions like banks to fall back on “for times like this.”

“I’m less excited now,” he said.

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Twitter Hacker Pleads Guilty in Florida Court

The young hacker accused of being the mastermind behind a breach last year of high-profile Twitter accounts pleaded guilty on Tuesday in a Florida court, agreeing to serve three years in juvenile prison.

Graham Ivan Clark, 18, faced fraud charges after a hack that compromised Twitter accounts belonging to Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, former President Barack Obama and other celebrities. Under Mr. Clark’s control, the accounts tweeted fraudulent messages soliciting Bitcoin, promising to double the money of anyone who sent cryptocurrency. The scheme netted Bitcoin worth more than $100,000 before it was shut down.

Mr. Clark’s plea agreement brings some closure to one of the oddest and most alarming episodes in Twitter’s history. In an election year that had already pulled the company into the center of American politics, the breach raised questions about Twitter’s corporate security and generated speculation that state-sponsored hackers could be responsible, rather than teenagers.

The arrest of Mr. Clark also raised questions about how someone so young could penetrate the defenses of what was supposedly one of the tech industry’s most sophisticated companies. The attack took control of Twitter’s internal systems that are used to manage accounts, and forced Twitter to temporarily block verified accounts from tweeting as the company scrambled to push the hackers out of its systems.

New York Times. He moved on to selling and swapping rare social media user names on the forum OGUsers, where he connected with other hackers who said they participated in the Twitter breach.

The hackers, who prosecutors said were led by Mr. Clark, initially used their access to Twitter’s internal systems to take over accounts with unusual user names like @dark and @vague, which they sold on OGUsers for thousands of dollars. But as the day of the attack wore on, the hackers changed tactics. Accounts belonging to celebrities and cryptocurrency companies tweeted messages that promised to double the money of anyone who sent Bitcoin.

But the offer was a scam. “No Bitcoin currency was returned as promised to these victims,” Darrell Dirks, a prosecutor with the Florida state attorney’s office, said during a court hearing on Tuesday.

Two other young men, Nima Fazeli and Mason Sheppard, were also arrested and faced charges related to the hack. Mr. Sheppard’s and Mr. Fazeli’s cases are in progress.

Mr. Clark, who appeared in court on Tuesday via videoconference, pleaded guilty to the 30 charges against him. In a deal with prosecutors, Mr. Clark agreed to three years in juvenile prison followed by three years of probation. He also agreed not to use computers without permission or supervision from law enforcement. If he violates the terms of the deal, he could face 10 years in adult prison.

Because Mr. Clark is classified as a youthful offender under a Florida law that offers more lenient sentencing terms to young people, he may be eligible to serve some of his sentence in a boot camp. He turned over the cryptocurrency he owned at the time of his arrest, prosecutors said, and it will be used to pay restitution to the victims of the hack. He will receive 229 days credit for time served since his arrest last year.

“He took over the accounts of famous people, but the money he stole came from regular, hard-working people. Graham Clark needs to be held accountable for that crime, and other potential scammers out there need to see the consequences,” Hillsborough’s state attorney, Andrew Warren, said in a statement. “In this case, we’ve been able to deliver those consequences while recognizing that our goal with any child, whenever possible, is to have them learn their lesson without destroying their future.”

David Weisbrod, a lawyer for Mr. Clark, declined to comment on the plea deal.

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The S.E.C. Is Increasingly Making E.S.G. a Priority

Allison Herren Lee was named acting chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission in January, and since then she has been active, especially when it comes to environmental, social and governance, or E.S.G., issues. The agency has issued a flurry of notices that such disclosures will be priorities this year. Today, Ms. Lee, who was appointed as a commissioner by President Donald Trump in 2019, is speaking at the Center for American Progress, where she will call for input on additional E.S.G. transparency, according to prepared remarks seen by DealBook.

The supposed distinction between what’s good and what’s profitable is diminishing, Ms. Lee will argue in the speech, saying that “acting in pursuit of the public interest and acting to maximize the bottom line” are complementary. The S.E.C.’s job is to meet investor demand for data on a range of corporate activities, and Ms. Lee’s planned remarks suggest that greater transparency on E.S.G. issues won’t be optional for much longer. “That demand is not being met by the current voluntary framework,” she will say. “Human capital, human rights, climate change — these issues are fundamental to our markets, and investors want to and can help drive sustainable solutions on these issues.”

  • Ms. Lee will also argue that “political spending disclosure is inextricably linked to E.S.G. issues,” based on research showing that many companies have made climate pledges while donating to candidates with contradictory voting records. The same goes for racial justice initiatives, she will say.

This is not an interim priority. Ms. Lee is acting chief, but based on recent statements by Gary Gensler, President Biden’s choice to lead the S.E.C., she’s laying the groundwork for more action rather than throwing down the gauntlet. In his confirmation hearing this month, Mr. Gensler said that investors increasingly wanted companies to disclose risks associated with climate change, diversity, political spending and other E.S.G. issues.

Not everyone at the S.E.C. is on board. Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman, fellow commissioners also appointed by Mr. Trump, recently protested the “steady flow” of climate and E.S.G. notices. They issued a public statement, asking, “Do these announcements represent a change from current commission practices or a continuation of the status quo with a new public relations twist?”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested, to varying degrees, that the governor of New York consider resigning over allegations of sexual harassment. He has rejected those calls and is considering running for a fourth term.

The U.S. is considering new ways to protect itself against cyberattacks. Efforts by China and Russia to breach government and corporate computer networks — and the failure of American intelligence to detect them — have spurred discussions about ways to organize U.S. cyberdefenses, including more partnerships with private companies.

Credit Suisse is accused of continuing to help Americans evade taxes. The Swiss bank aided clients in hiding assets, seven years after it promised U.S. federal prosecutors that it would stop doing so, according to a whistle-blower report. That puts the firm at risk of a fresh investigation and more financial penalties. The bank said it was cooperating with the authorities.

A veteran Democratic official is poised to join the Biden administration. Gene Sperling, an economic wonk who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, is likely to oversee the implementation of the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, Politico reports.

Stripe is now Silicon Valley’s most valuable start-up. The payments processor has raised funding from investors like Sequoia and Fidelity at a $95 billion valuation. Stripe plans to use the money to expand in Europe, including in its founders’ home country, Ireland.

chief counsel of the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase before joining the O.C.C. But his enthusiasm isn’t based on Bitcoin’s success as much as on his personal struggles, he told DealBook.

Mr. Brooks borrowed his way out of an ailing town. He grew up in Pueblo, Colo., a steel center that lost its purpose in the 1980s. His father took his own life when Mr. Brooks was 14, and he and his mother had little. In high school, he waited tables and took out loans for school, for a car and eventually for a home. Now, he’s betting that blockchain can help the underbanked do the same more easily.

“Unlocking credit availability allows people to move up the ladder,” Mr. Brooks said. Nearly 50 million Americans don’t have credit scores, but many are creditworthy. Traditional rating systems aren’t equipped for nuanced assessments that might include things like rent, Netflix bills or income from gig work. For many, the inability to borrow limits opportunities to achieve financial security.

Finding solutions to financial inclusion that are immune to politics is key, noted Mr. Brooks, a Trump administration appointee. Credit, he argues, lets people bet on themselves regardless of which party is making policy, and the current system excludes many worthy borrowers. “Let’s let more people climb ladders,” Mr. Brooks said.


— Howard Lindzon, an investor, entrepreneur and market commentator, speaking to The Times’s Erin Griffith on the booms (or bubbles) in everything from trading cards to Bitcoin, SPACs and so-called meme stocks.


new data from the Harris Poll, revealed exclusively in DealBook.

A year of living in fear created unlikely heroes. For the past year or so, the Harris Poll has monitored public sentiment in weekly surveys of more than 114,000 people. At the height of the emergency, more than half of respondents were afraid of dying from the virus and a similar share were afraid of losing their jobs. “Only in the past month, with vaccines rising and hospitalizations and deaths declining, is fear abating,” the report noted.

The Times’s Opinion podcast “Sway,” the economist Mariana Mazzucato told Kara Swisher that the traditional narrative has holes in it.

“Do you have any idea where the innovation in places like Silicon Valley came from?” asked Ms. Mazzucato, the founder of University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. She ticked off technologies like the internet and GPS: “We wouldn’t have any smart product without all the smart technology, which was government-financed.”

Listen to the conversation here.

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Investment Mania: From Crypto Art to Trading Cards

“Most people are cheering, but at the same time, shaking their heads and going, when is the bust coming?” said Jane Leung, the chief investment officer at SVB Private Bank.

One of those who bought into the frenzy was Matthew Schorr, 35, a lawyer in Cherry Hill, N.J. For years, he has been on the lookout for hot investments, but lost interest in the stock market and abandoned Bitcoin after his friends dismissed the cryptocurrency as “fake money.” He now regrets that because the value of a single Bitcoin has soared above $57,000, meaning the eight Bitcoin he paid for a Domino’s pizza in 2011 would be worth more than $450,000 today.

Mr. Schorr did not want to miss out again. So starting in January, he spent $5,000 to buy 351 videos from NBA Top Shot, a site for trading basketball highlight clips, after he saw social media chatter about them selling for tens of thousands of dollars. The value of those clips has now soared to $67,000, according to Momentranks.com, which tracks the sales.

The clips are a type of investment known as NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, which have taken off in music, art and sports. The digital tokens use networks of computers to prove that a digital item like a video, image or song is authentic, giving the item a value — at least in the eyes of the person buying it. Some liken NFTs to digital trading cards. (The creators of the underlying works typically retain the copyright.)

Skeptics consider NFTs among the most questionable of assets, since an NFT image can be endlessly copied and shared. Still, enough people are convinced of the value of authenticating tokens that they have dovetailed with another market-propelling phenomenon, FOMO, or “fear of missing out.”

“I’m trying to keep my finger on the pulse and not let myself fall behind again,” said Mr. Schorr, who spends as much as five hours a day researching the market and chatting with fellow collectors on Discord. “That sort of return over six weeks is completely unheard-of in any financial vehicle.”

Last month, NBA Top Shot crossed $232 million in total sales since it started last year — including $47.5 million in sales on a single day.

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