Uncovering abandoned multi-million dollar Ethereum projects: The life of an NFT archeologist
This story, like so many worth telling, begins with an unprompted DM on Twitter:
“This is a bit of a strange message to send, but I saw that you were a presenter at the Christie’s Art + Tech Summit in July, 2018,” it read.
The recipient, former EU Blockchain Observatory & Forum member William Skannerup, told me the message went on to inquire about “plastic ‘gift cards’ in each goodie bag” given to attendees. They’d become quite valuable, wrote the sender, adding, “if you find the gift card, let me know, and we can maybe set up a Zoom call to discuss a sale price.”
Confused but intrigued, Skannerup replied.
“He messaged me back immediately,” Skannerup said, “saying, ‘I can offer you $35,000.’”
The gift card, if you haven’t already guessed, was one of the now famous “Lost Robbies,” cards SuperRare gave away at the 2018 Christie’s Tech Summit. Artist Robbie Barrat split one of his digital pieces into 300 frames, each of which was minted separately on SuperRare, like a jigsaw puzzle. Physical gift cards were then dropped into the attendee gift bags that could be scratched to reveal how to claim digital ownership of one of the unique frames on SuperRare.
Essentially, each attendee with a gift bag was given the opportunity to claim one unique frame. However, since NFTs were nearly unknown at the time, it is believed that most of the cards ended up in the trash. Consequently, their value has skyrocketed. One sold this August for over $630,000.
Over 5,000 miles away from Skannerup’s London apartment, the DM’s sender, Adam McBride, awaited his reply in Costa Rica. McBride had found Skannerup after days sat at his keyboard, meticulously running date, area, and keyword searches on Google, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms for any mention of the word “art” in London around the time of Christie’s Summit.
This type of pursuit is McBride’s passion. He is one of a small, dedicated group of digital historians who spend their days combing through and documenting NFTs’ distant past, which is somewhere between the Octobers of 2015 and 2018.
“My bio is NFT archeologist,” he said. “That is what I am. For me, it is treasure hunting; digging up these pieces of the past which walk us through the story to today.”
McBride graduated from the University of Vermont in 1993 and moved to the Virgin Islands. He met his wife there and they moved to Costa Rica. At the age of 33, he was able to sell his first business and had enough money to retire.
What followed was the realization of a dream: McBride surfed every day, he traded stocks online. He was free, he was liberated, he was… bored as fuck. Slowly, surely, over the course of years, the need for purpose overtook the desire for relaxation. He opened businesses, started The Adam McBride Show podcast, and then, late in 2020, he discovered NFTs.
They became his singular focus, with each podcast episode focusing on the NFT market.
“And then the MoonCats happened in March, and then Curio [Cards] happened the next day, and Etheria happened like two days later,” he said, “man, and I was in the rabbit hole 10, 12 hours a day hunting, because I wanted to find my own MoonCats.”
Given the historical value and scarcity of the cats (at the time they were the second oldest NFT project discovered on Ethereum), demand – and the price point – skyrocketed.
“So, me and a guy I met on Twitter spent literally – literally – 12 hours a day, just looking through smart contracts trying to find projects,” McBride said. “On Google, searches by date, searches by keywords – because people didn’t use ‘NFT’ back then so we’d search ‘digital art,’ anything.”
Most of the projects he digs for don’t have websites. They’re just blips on the blockchain that can be uncovered through searches of Etherscan, Github, Discord and Reddit threads.
“[In 2016 through 2018,] there were literally guys in their basements building little side projects,” he said.
Then, in the middle of April, they stumbled across a contract for a project named EtherWaifu – as in the animated Japanese romantic characters fetishized by gentlemen with unshaved necks.
“The website was still working!” McBride said. “You couldn’t buy or sell on the website, but you still could on the contract.”
McBride reached out to the founders of EtherWaifu and helped them revitalize and market the project, resulting in a life changing 179.5 ETH (over $500,000 at time of publication) in sales for founders Jubi and Agro.
“I get chills just talking about it,” McBride said. “I know what that’s like, the freedom from a life changing amount of money… [EtherWaifu] is the feather in my cap that I love the most.”
At the beginning of the month, McBride played a role in the revitalization of CryptoArte – an NFT art collection from 2018 that tells the history of Ethereum. As of August 7th the project had seen more than $3.5M in sales.
And just last week, using keyword searches to comb through old contracts from 2016, McBride discovered Pixel Map.
“After about a week [of keyword searching],” he said, “I tried the word ‘pixel’ and, probably on the tenth or eleventh tab, Pixel Map popped up.”
Reconstructed screenshot of PixelMap and chat by @eikonbneath
Pixel Map was a side project of developer Ken Erwin in November of 2016 where he put pixels on a map and bound them to the blockchain.
McBride reached out to Erwin through LinkedIn and the two began talking. He helped Erwin revitalize and market the project and, as of four days ago, the Pixel Map has been relaunched and resulted in over $3.4M in earnings for Erwin.
That brings us to McBride’s favorite adventures of all time, The Lost Robbies, which he discovered after reading a Tweet:
“The treasure hunt aspect of it was just too delicious to me,” he said. “I went downstairs, got a cappuccino, talked to my wife and said, ‘I can’t think of a better investment of my time right now than trying to find one of these things.”
Soon after, McBride sent the DM that started this story and Skannerup found himself dumping out a box of business cards.
“I have this box with 3 to 4 thousand business cards in it that I poured on to the floor,” he said. He began sifting through the cards. “And wow, there it was. There was the card.”
Skannerup had found a Lost Robbie – a plastic 3×5” card valued at over half a million.
Instead of scratching it and claiming the frame, he’s opting to sell it unscratched.
“If you scratch a lottery card it is quite obvious what the next step is,” he said. “But I realized there can’t be many unscratched Robbie’s left, most of them have been lost and the others redeemed. Is there someone that would appreciate it as a collector’s item? The first person to have the name without any transfer history?”
It’s an interesting concept: a physical object that holds value because of the digital object it represents, like an unopened pack of virtual baseball cards wrapped in plastic.
Skannerup took the card to be framed in glass.
“You can’t imagine how confused the framemakers were as to why I wanted to frame some plastic card,” he said. They also didn’t appreciate his insistence on watching them work.
“I’m going to be sitting here with you,” he told the framemaker. “If you stole it and scratched it, I don’t have any legal right to say it is mine.”
While Skannerup was at the framemakers last weekend, McBride was launching the Pixel Map Discord channel, promoting the project. Personally, he’s yet to make any money from Pixel Map. Actually, he’s yet to make money from any of his archeological digs, save some gifted NFTs from those he’s helped.
“For me, it is about the treasure hunting,” he said. “It is about telling the story of the history of NFTs and how they grew from their digital art origins into this new thing.”
“In 20 years, everyone on earth will know what an NFT is. We’re just so lucky we get to be a part of this at the beginning.”
Note: If you’re interested in the sale of Skannerup’s unscratched Robbie, contact him on Twitter, @skannerup
The artist talks “a history of cryptoart,” SuperRare collector badges, and how it feels to be part of a pivotal moment in art.