AI-produced Portrait Sells at Christie’s for 40 Times its Estimate

AI-produced Portrait Sells at Christie’s for 40 Times its Estimate
Courtesy of Obvious
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As the first “AI-produced” work of art to sell at auction, the Portrait of Edmond de Belamy made history last week for selling at 40 times its estimate.

The portrait, which looks like a blurry and unfinished old masters painting, was expected to bring $7,000-10,000 at Christie’s New York, but after about seven minutes of bidding, the work hammered down at $432,500. It is said to be created by an algorithm controlled by a French trio operating an art collective called Obvious, focusing on artificial intelligence and art.

The trio produced an entire family of portraits all belonging to the made up Belamy family, and according to their website, all seem to be up for sale. Hugo Caselles-Dupre, Pierre Fautrel and Gauthier Vernier, the trio behind Obvious, created these portraits by inputting 15,000 portraits dating back to the 14th century, into GAN (Generative Adversarial Networks) and then an algorithm was programmed to produce original works that could pass as man-made.

“We’re looking at these portraits the same way a painter would do it. Like walking in a gallery, taking some inspiration. Except that we feed this inspiration to the algorithm, and the algorithm is the part that does the visual creation.” Vernier said of the process and outcome.

While certainly novel and controversial given the sale numbers, the trio have attracted some critics as well who dismiss their approach as innovative and shine a light on the artists that have been working with AI for years now. Speaking to the New York Times before the auction, Mario Klingermann, a German artist with a long history of incorporating machine learning and GAN’s into his work, compared the portrait “to a connect-the-dots-children’s painting”, clearly dismissing its groundbreaking claim as GANs have long been used by artists for years.

Despite all this however, as well as a 19 year old working at Stanford University’s AI Research lab claiming semi-credit for their algorithms, Obvious remains unfazed. Their portraits thus far have stirred a strong debate about what constitutes human creation and they have managed to get the attention of the world’s collectors. 

“I think (artificial intelligence) has its place in the art world because it tries to replicate what any artist would do, like trying to create from what he knows,” Vernier said. “It forces you to try to understand your own creativity and how you would be able to replicate it.”