Pepe, the name of the “sad frog” meme, has been around for several years — a low steady hum on 4chan and Reddit, not wildly popular but a handy shorthand to accompany a story of something bad happening to you, to indicate you “know that feel.” However, sometime in the last year, Pepe exploded: Pepe as a member of ISIS, Pepe as Drake, Pepe fully nude. When some of 4chan’s users saw that their Pepe was proliferating across the internet among “normies” (Katy Perry even tweeted a Pepe), they flipped out. They declared that certain images of Pepe were rare, and insisted that certain images could not be copied by poorly watermarking them.
Then in April 2015, as a sweeping act of meme seppuku, someone uploaded collection of 1,272 different pictures of Pepe to Imgur, and announced that the market of rare Pepes has been flooded and all Pepes are devalued. It was like Black Friday 1929 for the (fake) meme market.
Of course, there were no rare Pepes. The very idea of collecting Pepes like comic books or other geeky collectibles (something the average redditor would likely be more familiar with than the world of fine art dealing) was all a big joke.
And yet, the joke’s preposterous premise that a digital image could be rare or valuable is itself flawed. Digital art can be rare and valuable. That’s a real thing. Net art and digital art are real, and there are real working digital artists and pieces that are bought and sold for real money. So is it actually so unrealistic that certain images of Pepe could indeed be rare and valuable?
The art world has a long tradition of appreciating works that might appear to an untrained eye to be commonplace and valueless, like Duchamp’s urinal or Warhol’s soup cans. A work of visual art where the cultural meaning and gravity extends far beyond just the aesthetic value. There are Pepes that echo serious political or pop cultural themes like ISIS Pepe or Drake Pepe. Even the most plain Pepe expresses a deep and complex portrayal of the feelings of isolation of the young male in a hyper-connected digital world. We as a society agree that art that speaks to our hearts has value. Why can’t Pepe be considered fine art? What if there ARE rare Pepes, expensive ones, even?
To find out how an actual market value for a rare Pepe might work, I asked experts in the field of digital art.
Michael Connor, artistic director of Rhizome, a digital arts organization affiliated with the New Museum: "A piece of digital art can definitely be rare. Consider, for example, Constant Dullaart looking for images of the vacation photograph of Jennifer Knoll that was widely used as a Photoshop demo image. However, rarity is a complicated way to assign value to digital works.
"Unlike a Picasso painting, which has a kind of built-in rarity because each one is one of a kind, a digital artwork that has widely recognized value can only maintain its scarcity if it is lost or if it is protected in some kind of legalistic way. Owning digital art either means having the original files as well as certain kinds of legal rights to use it, or it might mean owning the only copy of something and hoarding it like Gollum.
"One very nice way that artists can protect the scarcity value of their work is by assigning it a specific URL. For example, there can be many copies of a particular .swf file, but in some sense there can be only one jellotime.com."
Zoë Salditch, director of artist relationship for Electric Objects, a hardware device specifically designed for displaying digital art: "When I think about the fine art world market, I can't point to a Pepe-centric artwork; however, Richard Prince's recent Instagram series comes to mind. He used appropriated screenshots (definitely a technique of memes as well as postmodernism) of other people's — mostly young women's — selfies from Instagram and blew them up on a canvas, sold them for tens of thousands of dollars a piece, and generated a lot of drama. There are also artists that engage with meme and internet culture who are selling well in fine art markets, like Jon Rafman, and Brad Troemel (and his collective The Jogging).
"I would say that the most valuable and rare Pepe would be some sort of original Matt Furie [the artist who first drew the frog] Pepe. Perhaps a sketch from his sketch book, a study drawing/illustration, poster or something along these lines from the early '00s when Pepe was first created. He's currently selling his drawings and watercolors for about $200–400 a piece online.
"If there were some sort of event that created a ton of fanfare around an original, 'vintage' or 'rare' Pepe by Furie — like an art auction — it's possible the 4chan/meme communities could rally around it and dramatically raise the price (a la the picture of 4chan on eBay). There could be other Pepe inspired art from great and relevant cartoonists, like Ben Jones, that could drive even more attention to the event. This is actually a common tactic that fine art auction houses use to generate more and bigger sales for artwork on the auction block."
Michael Duca, co-founder and CEO of NeonMob, a digital art sharing and trading site (think more like DeviantArt and less the Museum of Modern Art): "Ownership and viewability when it comes to digital art are two separate things. Ownership is who legally owns a particular work of digital art. Viewability is who has the ability to see it. Programmers can limit viewability with some tricks, but completely preventing people from sharing digital art is close to impossible. That doesn't mean the underlying work has no value or that people won't spend money to own it.
"In short, yes, it is possible to have a rare Pepe that is actually worth money. You'd want for the original work to be sold on a platform that recorded the buyer and allowed for future transactions of that digital work (e.g., via trade or resale). You would want to authenticate the work was original and ideally the artist would be the one selling the work. You would have to be OK with assuming the image would be shared more widely. But still, just like software or physical goods there would be one or more owners, depending on the number of authentic, original prints sold, and they would have a finite scarcity corresponding to some monetary value, which is determined by the market demand for that print."
Magdalena Sawon, owner and director of the Postmasters Gallery in NYC, which specializes in new media and net artists: "Selling memes, GIFs, and other internet-based material is complicated and at this point frankly next to nonexistent because if the work itself belongs and functions exclusively online; it is counter to its nature to have it removed from that 'habitat'. And if you do not, what exactly does the ownership mean?
"I work with an artist Rafael Rozendaal and we sell his websites. The buyer’s name appears in the browser header, but the sale comes with a contract that new owner must keep it online. It’s more like having a bench in the park named after you.
"The frog thing is a playful joke.
"Price for these — I have no clue. Zero. Zip. Nada."
So the experts seem to agree: Rare Pepes aren’t valuable yet, but it’s possible they could be. Either by the original artist claiming his stake in memebucks, or someone uses a method of creating actual ownership or rarity.
There have been some work-arounds. Starting last April, people have been selling rare Pepes on eBay. They’re sometimes just single digital files, and sometimes larger collections, or even actual, physical paintings. However, when I showed Michael Connor of Rhizome an eBay listing for a $250 painting of Pepe, he said, “I think it's cheating to paint a Pepe and call it rare.”
I emailed Matt Furie, the artist who first drew the frog as a character in his web comic Boy's Club, to ask what he thought about the rare Pepe market. He replied, “I’ll be happy to answer your question for $5,000 USD.”
So perhaps, we have an answer: The market value of rare Pepe information is in the mid–four figures, but in an egalitarian move, BuzzFeed News is bringing you this article for the low, low price of $0.
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.
Contact Katie Notopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.