Leo Morris: Collecting can get squirrelly

Leo Morris

I’ve been trying to make sense of NFTs, those digital creations called “non-fungible tokens” that can sell for millions of dollars.

So, naturally, I thought of the squirrel.

It showed up one day underneath the tree that stood in the outdoor break area for Fort Wayne Newspapers, the umbrella company for the morning Journal Gazette and afternoon News-Sentinel. Only JG columnist Frank Gray and I were there at the time, and the squirrel walked right up,

One of us, I don’t remember which, threw down a bite of a snack brought out from a vending machine, and the squirrel ate it. For the next several days, Frank and I kept going to the tree with snacks, and the squirrel kept coming up to accept them.

Then one day, the squirrel just wasn’t there, having gone the way of other squirrels, to a tree in a better neighborhood or to meet his destiny as the blue plate special at the roadkill café.

But he was already destined to become legend. So, on my next birthday, Mary, one of my office pals, gave me a stuffed squirrel as a present. I whipped out my Swiss Army Knife and cut off the tag, which caused Mary to gasp in horror so loudly that I thought she might be having a stroke.

“You have destroyed its value!” she screeched.

Turns out the critter was a Beanie Baby, and Mary was a collector.

Beanie Babies, some of you might recall, became a craze in the 1990s when people started buying them not just as toys but as an “investment” sure to keep increasing in value, which they did, until, of course, they didn’t.

A few people got out at the top of the bubble, when Beanies were selling online for 10 times their original cost and some rare ones went for six figures, making a killing. Their creator, Ty Warner, became a billionaire.

But many more people held on too long until the bubble burst, their thousands in investment suddenly a relatively worthless pile of pellet-stuffed toy animals.

Think of NFTs as the digital equivalent of Beanie Babies. They have no physical reality, existing only as images in the cloud and visible only through electronic devices. When people “buy” one, they are in essence just buying a ticket proving they “own” the original, even though the creator might retain the copyright and millions of reproductions might be viewed for free by anyone with a laptop or a cellphone.

That makes no sense at all.

On the other hand, neither does paying millions of dollars for the original of “Starry Night” or “American Gothic” when anyone can enjoy a perfectly good copy for a few bucks. They’re not paying that much because they appreciate art but because they believe the art will appreciate.

I had a print of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” on my office wall for 30 years and looked at it every day, and I now have it at home. The painting’s sense of bleak isolation speaks to something primal in me. I went once to see the original at the Art Institute of Chicago and, frankly, it didn’t impress me any more than my copy.

As for collectibles, I think they should have some intrinsic value other than their potential to whet my greed.

I once had about 100 cookbooks, until a storm took out a window in my sunroom and they were drenched in rain. Of course, anytime I needed a recipe I googled it, but the books were always there for me to browse, food porn for my depraved gastric needs.

My sister collects cookie jars in the shape of cats. Of course, she doesn’t keep cookies in any of them, but I don’t see her rubbing her hands together in glee and plotting to buy an island in the Caribbean when she sells them off. She just likes cats.

I have my tagless Beanie Baby squirrel at home, now, too, sitting beside my laptop. It’s a reminder of a few pleasant days under a tree and serves as a warning not to get stupid with money. If somebody tempts me with an NFT of a squirrel under a tree, eating peanut butter crackers from somebody’s hand, I will resist. What’s worth $200 today and $69 million tomorrow will just be worthless pixels the day after tomorrow.

My brother, the computer programmer (who collects guns, which he actually shoots, at his own range), once told me a saying from the early digital age: If you computerize a mess, you just get a faster mess.

That wisdom still holds. If you computerize investment stupidity, you just get faster stupidity.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].