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A self-portrait by Emily Ratajkowski that was'reclaimed' sells for $175,000

Emily Ratajkowski, a model and actress, announced on Twitter in April that she was "reclaiming" her image by selling a photograph of herself through a major auction house, Christie's. The "conceptual artwork," titled "Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution," was sold for $175,000 after fees in New York on Friday.

However, this was not just any photograph.

The photograph – for which bidding began at $2,000 – depicts Ratajkowski with her arms crossed in front of another piece of art that hangs in her home: a canvas by artist Richard Prince, who was famous for appropriating one of her Instagram posts for his own exhibition.

Prince exhibited the work without her permission. It includes a portrait she shot for Sports Illustrated as well as public Instagram comments on the photo – including one added later by the artist in which he appears to detail fantasies about her. The print was part of a larger series of repurposed Instagram screenshots titled "New Portraits," which Prince first exhibited as paintings at New York's Gagosian in 2014.

Ratajkowski's "reclaimed" image was sold as a non-fungible token, or NFT, a type of virtual signature that utilizes blockchain technology to establish ownership of digital assets, such as photographs.
Ratajkowski's "reclaimed" image was sold as a non-fungible token, or NFT, a type of virtual signature that utilizes blockchain technology to establish ownership of digital assets, such as photographs.

On April 23, Ratajkowski wrote on Twitter, "I hope to set a symbolic precedent for women and ownership online, one that allows women to retain ongoing authority over their image and to receive just compensation for its use and distribution."

Ratajkowski's "reclaimed" image was sold as a non-fungible token, or NFT, a type of virtual signature that utilizes blockchain technology to establish ownership of digital assets, such as photographs.

She is far from the only celebrity to join the NFT. Grimes, Ja Rule, and Lindsay Lohan are just a few of the many artists who have sold work using the tokens, which have enabled the art market to diversify significantly into digital art – as well as the sale of viral memes and tweets. The artist Beeple's first NFT sold at a major auction house fetched $69 million in March at Christie's.

Ratajkowski has symbolically reappropriated Prince's appropriated artwork by selling the meta image "Buying Myself Back," which she purchased with an ex-boyfriend for $80,000 shortly after Prince's exhibition, as she famously detailed in an essay of the same name published by The Cut.

However, it adds another layer of complexity to the already troubling issues of copyright and ownership. Prince's "New Portraits" series has been the subject of several ongoing court battles, as he did not obtain permission from the subjects of the images. Ratajkowski described it as "an image taken from my platform and produced as another man's valuable and significant art" in The Cut.

emily Ratajkowski
emily Ratajkowski

Meanwhile, Prince has argued that his use of publicly accessible Instagram images is permissible under fair use. According to the Art Newspaper, he stated in a 15-page statement that he wanted to "reimagine traditional portraiture and bring to a canvas and art gallery a physical representation of the virtual world of social media."

“I have no idea who Emily Ratajkowski is or what she does,” he wrote in a tweet prior to the auction. I've never met her and have never painted her. I am not interested in NFTs, Bitcoin, or any other form of cryptocurrency.”

Just one day before the Christie's sale of "Buying Myself Back," another of Prince's works from the series, which featured an Instagram screenshot from performer Slayrizz (alternatively known as K Rizz), sold at Sotheby's in New York for $75,600, well below its low estimate of $80,000.

emily Ratajkowski
emily Ratajkowski

Ratajkowski has framed the saga as part of a broader issue stemming from the ease with which digital images can be distributed and exploited on the internet. Her viral essay also detailed how her image had been exploited by other artists and photographers, including the paparazzi. She claimed that without her consent or knowledge, portraits of her had been sold or included in books.

“The digital terrain should be a place where women can freely share their likeness while maintaining control over its use and receiving any potential capital associated with it,” she wrote on Twitter. Rather than that, the internet has frequently been used as a platform for others to exploit and distribute image(s).”

Actress and model Emily Ratajkowski is auctioning her first NFT at Christie's, in what she describes as an effort to reclaim control over her image. "The Hash" panel discusses digital ownership and NFTs as a form of empowerment.