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Portrait by French AI algorithm sells for US$432,500


A woman on Monday looks at a work of art created by an algorithm by a French collective named Obvious, which produces art using artificial intelligence, titled Edmond de Belamy, at Christie’s in New York.

Photo: AFP

A portrait made by algorithm on Thursday smashed new boundaries, selling for US$432,500 and becoming the first piece of artificial intelligence (AI) art sold at a major auction house, Christie’s said.

At first glance, Edmond de Belamy, the portrait of a gentleman dressed in black and framed in gold, could be any standard portrait from the 18th or 19th century.

Up close, the image is more intriguing. The face is fuzzy and the picture seemingly unfinished. Instead of an artist’s signature, it bears the stamp of a mathematical formula on the bottom right.

It is the brainchild of French collective Obvious, whose aim is to use AI to democratize art. To make the painting, artist Pierre Fautrel ran 15,000 classic portraits through computer software.

Once the software “understood the rules of portraiture,” using a new algorithm developed by Google researcher Ian Goodfellow, it generated a series of new images by itself, Fautrel said.

The French collective selected 11, calling them the “Belamy family,” one of which on Thursday fetched US$432,500 at Christie’s in New York, the epicenter of the traditional art market.

The price smashed its presale estimates of US$7,000 to US$10,000.

Christie’s said that the work was snapped up by an anonymous telephone bidder after a five-way battle between telephone and online bidders, and one bidder in the room.

Is it a work of art? Fautrel, 25, insisted that it is.

“Even if the algorithm creates the image, we are the people who decided to do this, who decided to print it on canvas, sign it as a mathematical formula, put it in a gold frame,” he said.

He compared AI art to early photography of the 1850s, which he said critics rubbished at the time as “not being art and which would destroy artists.”

Christie’s international head of prints and multiples Richard Lloyd persuaded the collective to put the print up for sale to foster a debate about AI in art, he said.

“I know it’s a debate that’s going on quite widely. I thought that in a way this marked a watershed — or slightly a tipping point,” Lloyd said.

Leaving aside the art debate, there are legal questions. Is the collective or the algorithm the artist? What are the copyright issues?

For Lloyd, this is just the beginning of AI art, he said.

“This is developing incredibly fast. Only in five or 10 years we will look back on this and it will look very different,” he said.

“Artists who are great adopters of technology, they will seize AI,” he predicted. “Artists will use it to generate images which they will then modify ... It will be quite seamless.”

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