Iranian asylum seeker wins UK art battle appeal against twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss

Art collector Amir Soleymani lands blow in first round of legal row over $650,000 digital painting

Tyler (L) and Cameron Winklevoss have been taken to court in the UK in a dispute over a digital artwork sale. Bloomberg
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An Iranian asylum seeker, who came to the UK a decade ago, has won the first round of his legal fight against US billionaire twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss over the purchase of a $650,000 digital painting.

Amir Soleymani is suing their online digital artwork auction site Nifty Gateway over a piece called Abundance by the artist known as Beeple.

Mr Soleymani's offer came third behind a $1.2 million winning bid but under the firm's policy the top 100 bidders are still expected to pay for a different version of the work.

He refused to pay the $650,000 and Nifty Gateway froze his account and took legal action against him in New York.

He lodged a legal claim at London's High Court on the grounds that as a UK bidder he had a right of redress under English consumer law.

Lord Justice Popplewell, sitting with Lord Justice Birss, agreed with Mr Soleymani's claim and said he had the right to challenge the fairness of the company's terms and conditions.

A trial will be held next year.

"In my judgment, the starting point is that this is a case about commerce on the internet in which the trader in question has traded via a website which is — at least well arguably — directed to the UK," Lord Justice Birss said.

"That matters because in a number of areas of law, the problem of which laws apply to activities on the internet is addressed by the question whether the activities are directed to or targeted at this country.

"Mr Soleymani has the better of the argument that the auction contract is a consumer contract under the Consumer Rights Act. This is a critical feature because no matter how global, borderless or decentralised a trader would say its internet business is, if the trader has directed its relevant commercial activities to this country then its dealings with consumers here are subject to our consumer law."

Nifty Gateway is run by technology entrepreneurs the Winklevoss brothers, who were once Olympic rowers and are worth an estimated $4bn.

It has 100,000 registered UK accounts, about a 10th of its global total, and the case could have repercussions for its British market.

"Imagine bidding to win an item, ending up in second place and getting almost the same thing the third bidder gets but with a significant difference in bid amount," Mr Soleymani told The Telegraph.

“This method of auction maximises revenue for the platform and artists but is damaging to collectors. I just want to get my money back."

Mr Soleymani, who lives in Liverpool, moved to the UK in 2011 to seek political asylum and successfully gained citizenship last year.

"He describes himself as a wealthy individual in part as a result of working in the technology sector, amassing significant crypto currency holdings, and in part as a result of substantial family inheritance, much of which is invested in real estate mainly in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and the UK," Lord Popplewell said.

"He describes himself as an entrepreneur, activist and philanthropist. He collects fine art, and has collected non-fungible tokens associated with art for some time. He has a private gallery to display his art collection.

"For the purposes of the application, Nifty accepts that he has the better of the argument that he is a consumer, and is accordingly to be treated as a consumer for the purposes of that application.

"Nifty does not, however, accept that he is in fact a consumer ... and the transaction involving the purchase of an NFT for $650,000 is not a typical consumer transaction, but nevertheless the arguments with which we are concerned must be tested by reference to the rights and protections afforded to consumers generally."

Before this auction, Mr Soleymani had purchased about 100 NFTs through the platform with a combined value of more than $2.5m and participated in 24 auctions.

"Each of those auctions had been what might be described as a conventional auction, in which there was a single winning bid, the highest bid securing the relevant NFT," the court heard.

"The auction which has given rise to the dispute was a 'ranked' auction in which the 100 highest bidders were successful and each received NFTs associated with the artwork in question. They were in effect awarded a numbered edition of the artwork corresponding to the position of their respective highest bids.

"The effect was that Nifty/the artist was entitled to be paid the total sum of the 100 highest bids. Mr Soleymani says that he was unaware that the auction was in this form and it made little sense commercially for the bidder; editions which are not the 'first edition' carry a significantly lower value, and yet all the bids would have been submitted, he says, on the basis of seeking to obtain the 'first edition'."

It led to Mr Soleymani withdrawing his cryptocurrency held on account on the website so as to avoid paying the amount of his bid in what he regarded as a "deceptive and unfair transaction".

The artist, Beeple, has previously sold an NFT for $69 million at Christie's, the world's most expensive NFT to date.

NFTs have developed rapidly as virtual versions of artworks, often fetching huge price tags.

Between May 2020 and April 2021, total sales of NFTs on Nifty Gateway amounted to $303.8m.

In 2021, an NFT of Twitter co-founder and former chief executive Jack Dorsey’s first tweet sold for about $3m.

NFT sales volume was $24.9bn in 2021, up from $94.9m the year before, according to DappRadar, which collects data from 10 blockchains.

Updated: November 14, 2022, 12:44 PM