What do Golda Meir, LeBron James and a drawing of Homer Simpson as a white nationalist meme all have in common? They are all going up on the NFT market, a type of blockchain-based commodity that has taken the collectibles world by storm.
Never-before-published color photographs of Meir, Israel’s only-ever female prime minister, visiting Kenya over 50 years ago are being sold online as non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, for several hundred dollars a pop.
They were recently posted online by a London software engineer whose grandfather was one of the Jewish state’s first fighter pilots and later flew for El Al, which is how it is thought he came to snap the photos of Meir in 1963.
NFTs are swiftly gaining popularity in the arts world and elsewhere as a way to sell ownership of reproducible digital artifacts or other multimedia creations.
A non-fungible token is a unit of data on the blockchain, which acts as digital ledger, using the same technology utilized by cryptocurrencies. Like cryptocurrencies, the NFTs are highly speculative investment vehicles, each underpinned by a creative work or action, and represented by a unique — or non-fungible — digital token recorded in the blockchain ledger.
The NFTs could be used to trade representations of physical objects, like the pictures of Meir or a painting, or digital creations, like audio files, videos, or any other kind of creative work. The NFT becomes something like a one-of-a-kind trading card, that can go up or down in value depending on demand and thus be traded for cash or other NFTs, or be kept as a collectible item with the bragging rights that come along with it.
Owning an NFT is not the same as owning the object, and thus a buyer cannot control reproduction or licensing, allowing the underlying work to continue to be reproduced or proliferate online. This makes them uniquely suitable for the internet age, where each gif or meme can take on a life of its own, no matter who owns the rights to it.
Among the NFTs sold recently are a collage by a digital artist that went for $69 million, a video highlight of basketball player LeBron James sold for $200,000, and a cartoon of Homer Simpson made to look like Pepe the Frog that someone shelled out over $300,000 for.
According to NonFungible.com, which tracks NFT markets, there have been over $500 million in NFT purchases thus far, including over $200 million in the last month alone.
“It is an experiment,” said Daniel, 36, the London software engineer who is selling the Meir NFTs. “Why not use the technology?” It is a frictionless way of transferring a digital art asset rather than the physical one, he said.
Daniel, who requested to not use his last name for privacy reasons, said the photos were handed over to his family a few weeks ago along with other items belonging to his grandfather, Les, after the partner of his grandfather passed away (Les died in 1998). While sifting through the items, Daniel’s father found the color slides, and mentioned them to his son.
“My father mentioned the slides to me casually,” said Daniel. “We had no idea these pictures existed or that my grandfather was on that flight. From what I understand it was Golda’s first official visit to Kenya shortly after Kenya’s independence.”
Meir visited Nairobi when she was still foreign minister in 1963. While there, she met with Kenyan independence leader and Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta, laid the cornerstone for the first Israeli embassy in Nairobi, and initiated Israel’s international development (MASHAV) program with Kenya.
The color photographs discovered in London have never been digitized or uploaded to the internet before, Daniel said.
The photographs show a smiling Meir, who later became Israel’s prime minister, dressed in a dark blue skirt-suit with a string of white pearls around her neck, being greeted at the tarmac in Nairobi. The El Al plane, with its original flying star logo – a six-pointed star with wings within a circle, is behind her. In the background a person wearing a Kenyan police fez hat can be seen.
“We are almost certain my grandfather Les took the photographs,” Daniel said.
Les had flown Lancaster bombers for the Royal Air Force in World War II and took part in the raids over Germany. He was later recruited by a Jewish Agency official and moved to Israel in 1949 to help get the fledgling state’s air force off the ground following the War of Independence.
“His skills were in very high demand, he was badly needed,” Daniel explained.
Les helped start the first training school of the post-independence Israel Air Force, eventually rising to the position of base commander. In 1956, he left the military and became an El Al pilot and captain.
“We think he was the pilot of that El Al plane which arrived in Nairobi,” said Daniel.
Before uploading the Meir photographs onto the OpenSea platform for sale, Daniel posted them onto a social media community focused on Kenyan history, where the images gained comments and garnered some interest, he said.
The photographs are being sold for $399 to $799, the OpenSea site shows. Payments can be received in USD Coin (USDC), a stable cryptocurrency pegged to the US dollar, Daniel said. USDC is managed by Circle and Coinbase, among the largest cryptocurrency brokers.
“Only four separate unique images will ever be minted on the Ethereum blockchain for this series,” the Open Sea caption to the pictures says.
So far no bids have been made on the NFTs, which are competing with another piece of Meir memorabilia on OpenSea, a 1973 Rosh Hashanah greeting to Newsweek’s Richard Chesnoff, postmarked just two weeks before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. It too has yet to receive an offer, despite being on the site for over a year.
Francine Klagsbrun, the author of “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” told The Times of Israel that she did not find the photographs posted by Daniel on the Open Sea site “particularly compelling.”
“Maybe they are unique because they are in color or maybe because, according to the caption, this was her first visit to Kenya. Or maybe there is some story behind the man taking the pictures,” she said by email. “But unless the people greeting her are important dignitaries, I don’t find these interesting. She was always greeted with flowers and a welcoming committee.”
Israel’s Government Press Office has 15 other photos from Meir’s visit to Kenya in its archives, though they are all black and white.
They show the foreign minister in a printed dress, at the cornerstone laying ceremony of the new embassy building in Nairobi, flanked by Kenya’s Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta, wearing a hat; Meir planting a tree at the same ceremony; reading from a scroll at the event and observing an ambulance presented by Israel to Kenya, on the occasion of the African nation’s independence celebration. In that photograph, she is wearing a dark suit, sensible laced shoes with a slight heel and clutching a box-shaped handbag.
In its early years, Israel had close ties with many African countries. The young Jewish state’s first embassy on the continent, in Accra, Ghana, opened its doors in 1956. Meir, who was foreign minister from 1956 to 1966 and became prime minister in 1969, was the first Israeli leader to tour West Africa.
“We couldn’t offer Africa money or arms, but, on the other hand, we were free of the taint of the colonial exploiters because all that we wanted from Africa was friendship,” Meir recalled in her autobiography.
Jerusalem was interested in the African states’ vote at the United Nations, she admitted, but argued that was not the main reason for Israel’s “African adventure.” Rather, she wrote, “We had something we wanted to pass on to nations that were even younger and less experienced than ourselves.”
“When Golda was foreign minister, she, along with the government as a whole, pursued a policy of establishing ties with the emerging nations of Africa,” said Klagsbrun, who is also a blogger on The Times of Israel.
“Golda loved going to the African nations and over the years she logged more than 100,000 miles on her trips to them,” Klagsbrun said. “Unlike the countries of Europe, Israel did not go to Africa as a colonial power; its purpose was to aid the newly-established countries and thus to make friends for Israel. Golda was beloved by the people in these countries as a result of her visits — many people named their children after her.”