News: Metakovan unmasks himself, FATF goes after DeFi and NFTs, Coinbase pays CFTC $6.5M over wash trades

I’ve been traveling around the U.S., visiting friends on the East and West Coasts and in between, and this is my first newsletter since the end of February.

This week has been a busy one, full of interviews and talking to reporters about nonfungible tokens. Who knew NFTs would become the next tulip mania? I’ve gained nearly a thousand more Twitter followers and several more patrons, which is wonderful because I can certainly use the support.

Peanut exploring a stream in Texas

As I write, Bitcoin is above $57,700, after reaching an all-time-high of $61,742 on March 13. Meanwhile, there are now 39.6 billion tethers in circulation—that’s 4.5 billion new tethers in the last three weeks, all helping to prop up the BTC price.

In my last newsletter, I said I didn’t think BTC would ever see $57,000 again. I was wrong, but I also didn’t expect Tether to keep blatantly printing billions more tethers—each one representing a dollar on an offshore exchange—after the NYAG settlement. It just shows this nonsense can go on a lot longer than any of us imagined.

Some quick updates—at the end of February, I did an all-day film interview for another QuadrigaCX documentary. I can’t tell you any more than this, unfortunately, but yes, more documentaries. (Still waiting for someone to do a Tether documentary and an NFT documentary, but we know those are coming.)

Also, fellow nocoiner David Gerard and I got a full viewing of the upcoming CBC Quadriga documentary. It was over a year ago that we met in Vancouver to film this. However, it feels like the Quadriga story is still unfinished, and will be until we know for certain that’s Gerald Cotten’s body buried in Halifax.

Here is the news. 

Metakovan reveals himself

The art world was beside itself on March 11 when a person going by “Metakovan” bought an NFT by Beeple for $69.3 million in ETH—making it the third most expensive* ever sold by a living artist, behind Jeff Koons’s “Rabbit” and David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)”—if you can get past the fact that it was paid for with magic beans.

In a blog post that went viral, I revealed that Metakovan was Vignesh Sundaresan, an Indian crypto entrepreneur who ran Coins-e, a shady, now-defunct Canadian crypto exchange. My post got 20,000 hits the first day. 

Four days later, Sundaresan admitted he was Metakovan in a blog post on the Metapurse website. Metapurse is his crypto investment fund.

We already know who you are. The question is, why were you using a pseudonym in the first place?

He claims that it wasn’t a pseudonym, just an “exosuit.” He did it, he says, because he wanted to prove to the world that people of color can buy high-art, too. He then delved into a rags-to-riches story about how he made it big in crypto. (This is a common bitcoiner fairytale: buy crypto, and you, too, can become fabulously wealthy.)

In an online auction, I’m not sure a pseudonym proves anything. But it does look like maybe you were trying to hide or distract from something, like the questionable past projects you’ve been involved with?

Also, if Metakovan wanted to make a point about social justice, why did he buy an NFT representing a collage full of angry, racist, misogynistic images? That makes no sense.

Art critic Ben Davis spent an entire day digging through Beeple’s magnum opus—a collection of 5,000 images. His findings, written up in an article for Artnet News, aren’t pretty. In one example, Hilary Clinton with a set of gold teeth and the caption: “Senator Clinton’s last-ditch effort to reach black voters.”

That just tells me Metakovan could care less about the art. He only cares that he gets publicity and can make money off the NFT by packaging and reselling it—in the form of B20 tokens—to retail suckers.

If you are wondering where Metakovan got all that ETH to buy the Beeple NFT—he claims he was an early investor in the Ethereum ICO. Anyone who bought into that ICO and hodled, could easily be a millionaire today.

But remember, Metakovan and business partner Twobadour (aka Anand Venkateswaran) also raised 50,000 ETH in an early 2018 ICO for their Lendroid project. LST (stands for Lendroid Support Token) is a dead shitcoin that never got listed on any exchange.

NFTs are garbage

Since I wrote my Metakovan blog post, I’ve been getting pushback from artists who want to believe that NFTs bring value to the art world. They don’t want to hear that NFTs are a scam. It’s sad to see artists getting sucked into the crypto cesspool. 

I wrote another post last week where I explain why NFTs are worthless—and how they have opened the door to fraud and money laundering. The only real value of NFTs is speculative—i.e., what the next sucker is willing to pay you for them. 

Artists want to believe that NFTs are an avenue for them to get paid for their work, but in truth, NFTs are simply pointers, expensive URLs on the blockchain. And if the object they point to moves or disappears, those URLs will forever point to nothing.

Some NFTs contain a hash of the artwork they represent. But as computer scientist Jorge Stolfi explains: Copies of a physical work of art are clearly distinct from the original. They are not the same atoms that the artist himself put on the canvas. In contrast, copies of a digital file are exactly the same bits. There is no ‘original’ of a digital file.

In other words, any copy of a digital artwork will have exactly the same hash, so putting the hash on the blockchain is useless.

FATF takes aim at DeFi/NFTs

The Financial Action Task Force, a global anti-money laundering watchdog, released an update of its Draft Guidance on a Risk-Based Approach to Virtual Assets and Virtual Asset Service Providers.

Decentralized exchanges, the platforms behind decentralized finance (DeFi) apps, are now considered virtual asset service providers—or VASPs.

The DeFi app, or smart contract, is not a VASP, but the owners and operators of the DEX are, which means they are obligated to ensure these platforms meet the same anti-money laundering requirements as other financial institutions.

This is a clear aim at DeFi founders, investors and VC firms. 

The FATF adds that NFTs that can be converted or exchanged for fiat currency or other virtual assets remain in scope.

In their analysis of the new guidance, blockchain analytics firm CipherTrace said that NFTs that can facilitate money laundering and terrorism financing are “virtual assets” as viewed by the FATF.

As I wrote in my NFT explainer piece, NFTs open the door to money laundering—big money coming from mysterious people to buy outrageously overpriced NFTs with cryptocurrency—so its no surprise that the FATF has NFTs on its radar.

Charlie Lee, the mystery Coinbase wash trader?

Coinbase settled with the CFTC for $6.5 million over claims that between January 2015 and September 2018 the exchange “recklessly delivered false, misleading, or inaccurate reports concerning transactions in digital assets.” 

The CFTC also claims a former Coinbase employee was wash trading LTC/BTC pairs on Coinbase’s GDAX platform between August and September 2016. (GDAX, meant for professional traders, was later renamed Coinbase Pro.) Wash trades are illegal because they make it look like there’s a lot of trade volume when there’s not. (Verge, CFTC press release and order)

The order doesn’t mention who the employee is but we know that Charlie Lee, the founder of litecoin, was working as an engineer at Coinbase at the time—and it looks very much like he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. 

LTC wasn’t worth more than a few dollars even after it got listed on GDAX in August 2016. The price really took off when litecoin was listed on Coinbase’s retail exchange—called simply “Coinbase”—in May 2017.

Lee left a month later to focus on his litecoin project and then dumped his LTC at the top of the market in December 2017, when LTC saw highs of $360. That was during that last crypto bubble.

Lee got a lot of flak for that. Ironically, he later claimed that he sold because “holding LTC made it a situation where I may do something to pump the value short term. but is bad for the long term success of Litecoin.”

Bizarrely, LTC has never seen the highs in the 2021 bubble that it did in 2017. It’s only at $200 now.

Whistleblower Bitfinexed suspected Lee of wash trading all along. He wrote up his suspicions in a blog post in 2018, which is well worth the read now.

If Coinbase—the leading crypto exchange in the U.S.—allowed a former employee to wash trade up to 99% of the daily volume of a shitcoin, you can bet this is standard practice on all crypto exchanges. 

Coinbase has delayed its public listing to April, according to Bloomberg. Its latest valuation is $68 billion.

Other newsworthy bits

Photographer/writer Andy Day says NFTs are a pyramid scheme. “To many, it’s a means of overthrowing the existing regime; when you look a little closer, you realize that it’s just an extreme manifestation of neoliberalism.” (Fstoppers)

If you still think NFTs are the greatest thing since sliced bread, Monty Python’s John Cleese has a bridge to sell you, specifically a drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge as an NFT. You can buy it on OpenSea. The highest bid so far is for $35,671. (Previously the top bid was $50,000.) (Decrypt)

Not a month goes by where we don’t hear of another DeFi rug pull. TurtleDex, a DeFi app running on the Binance Smart Chain, drained $2.5 million in crypto from liquidity pools on Ape Swap and Pancake Swap. (Who comes up with these names?) The owners immediately deleted TurtleDex’s telegram, the official website, and the Twitter page. (Decrypt)

USDC, the stablecoin issued by CENTRE, a project backed by Circle and Coinbase, has surpassed 10 billion. (The Block)

BofA published a report called “Bitcoin’s Dirty Little Secrets,” wherein analysts said there is no good reason to own bitcoin “unless you see prices going up.” David Gerard reviews the report in full on his blog.

First Trust Advisors and hedge fund SkyBridge Capital, led by former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, are pushing for a bitcoin ETF in the U.S. The prospectus for the “First Trust SkyBridge Bitcoin ETF Trust” was published on Friday. While a bitcoin ETF opened in February in Canada, U.S. regulators have repeatedly rejected attempts to introduce them, citing concerns about market manipulation.  (The Block)

Want to flush all your money away? Toilet paper company Charmin has an NFT.

*Update on March 22 — Third most expensive, not first.

Metakovan, the mystery Beeple art buyer, and his NFT/DeFi scheme

Last week, a crypto whale going by the moniker “Metakovan” bought a Beeple artwork via Christie’s auction for $69 million—$60 million in ETH and $9 million in fees, also in ETH*—outbidding a surprised Justin Sun, founder of the Tron blockchain, in the last minute.

After the barest amount of digging, I am going to hazard a guess that the mystery Beeple buyer is Vignesh Sundaresan, a crypto entrepreneur who has been in the crypto landscape for about seven years.  

It’s pretty obvious, really. Metakovan has given a few audio interviews. And if you compare those to previous Sundaresan interviews, like this one, it’s the same voice—and the same crypto origin story.

In a recent interview with the Good Time Show, for instance, Metakovan says he got into crypto in 2013, lived in Canada for several years, and then left for Singapore in 2017 because crypto regulations in North America were too “unclear.” That’s basically Sundaresan’s background as well.

Putting aside the matter of why Sundaresan would want to keep his real identity cloaked in the first place, the next question is the grift—how is he spinning a profit off of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first… 

Who is Sundaresan? 

According to the bio on his website, Vignesh Sundaresan is behind several crypto startups. 

He co-founded BitAccess, an early bitcoin ATM company in Canada. BitAccess was accepted into the Y Combinator startup accelerator in June 2014, according to Coindesk.  

And then, in January 2017, he founded the Singapore-based Lendroid Foundation. The firm raised $47.5 million (50,000 ETH) in a two-day initial coin offering in February 2018, according to CryptoRank. 

He also founded consulting firm Portkey Technologies and claims to have backed several popular crypto projects, including Ethereum, Polkadot, Dfinity, Omisego and Decentraland.

Going back further, Sundaresan launched crypto exchange Coins-e in Ontario in 2013. (Coincidentally, the same year that Gerald Cotten and Michael Patryn launched their failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX.)

Coins-e, a defunct Canadian exchange

Several Coins-e users have taken to social media to complain about losing money on Coins-e, calling it a scam and warning others to watch out. (See Reddit—here and here—and BitcoinTalk.)  

The posts on r/dogecoin are the most alarming. Coins-e clients report having their dogecoin disappear. Wireguysny described watching 1.3 million DOGE evaporate and the frustration of being unable to reach tech support to get to the bottom of the matter.

Xclusive2 wrote: “I’ve had just about enough of of Coins-e millions of coins missing, no reply from support ever! the reason is because it’s a one man operation. the problem is this joker is stealing and trading everyone’s coins when and how he feels to make himself rich he knows that Doge is worth a lot of BTC in large volumes.”

Sundaresan denies being the guy who allegedly ripped people off. According to him, Coins-e was sold to a company called Casa Crypto in Waterloo. The transfer was overseen by law firm LaBarge Weinstein, he claims.

“Since it was sold, I have not been associated with Coins-E. Allegations of a scam are FUD,” he told me.

I am so far unable to confirm that sale. I can’t find any announcement or press release on the sale. The Coins-e website no longer exists, and an archive of the site’s “About” page from 2016 doesn’t reveal who is behind the operation. I can’t find a company called “Casa Crypto” in Waterloo either.

Sundaresan offered to show me proof of the sale via a video call. I told him I was open to that, but he hasn’t gotten back to me to set up a time. He did not comment on whether he was Metakovan.

Meanwhile, I’ve looked up the domain registration for Coins-e.com. The site was registered in May 2013 and the only update was in May 2020—after customers complained about their coins vanishing.

The site was originally registered to Ramesh Vinayagam—the name of a famous Indian composer, per Reddit user xclusive2. Another alias perhaps? And, according to a Paste from January 2014, the site was registered to the man himself shortly before the registration was made private and Sundaresan entered the Y Combinator program.

The NFT connection

NFTs are the big thing now. They took over as the latest grift when decentralized finance, or DeFi, ran out of steam last year. Fellow nocoiner David Gerard wrote a blog post explaining how NFTs work and why digital ownership of art is utter nonsense.

“NFTs are entirely for the benefit of the crypto grifters,” he said. “The only purpose the artists serve is as aspiring suckers to pump the concept of crypto — and, of course, to buy cryptocurrency to pay for ‘minting’ NFTs.”

Stepping back, we first see the connection between Sundaresan’s startup Lendroid and NFTs in a blog post titled “Why DeFi Needs NFTs.” The post, written by his business partner Anand Venkateswaran, describes how NFTs solve the problems of DeFi, such as flash crashes, volatility, and governance. (Venkateswaran, a comms person, also has a pseudonym—he goes by Twobadour Pannar.)

Lendroid powers WhaleStreet, an Ethereum-based platform for swapping ERC20 tokens—that’s the standard for fungible Ethereum tokens. WhaleStreet has its own native “yield-farming token” called Shrimp.

Metakovan is also behind Singapore-based Metapurse, a crypto-based investment firm. Metapurse’s mission, according to its website, is to “democratize access and ownership to artwork.” The firm has been acquiring NFTs. It purchased Beeple’s “Everdays: 20 Collection” artworks for $2.2 million in December.

Metapurse has taken Beeple’s multiple artworks, or NFTs, along with three virtual museums, and combined everything into a “massive bundle.” Would you like to invest in this wonderful package? You can. All you have to do is stock up on Metapurse’s new B20 token.*

This blog post on the Metapurse substack lays out the grand plan:

“We believe we truly achieved this with B.20 — the name of a massive NFT bundle we are fractionalizing so that everyone can have ownership over the first large scale public art project within the metaverse. It is important to note that we’re fractionalizing ownership, not the assets themselves. These fractions will be available as 10 million B.20 tokens, and can be referred to as the “keys” to this digital vault.”

Number go up

The name of this game is “number go up.” This is about pumping B20, so holders and Metapurse can benefit when they go to sell the token—i.e., get more ETH, buy more NFTs, rinse, repeat.

The token distribution is something to pay attention to. Metakovan has 59% of all the B20 tokens. Why does he own the majority of tokens? As he explains it, that is to prevent any single person from owning more than half of B20 tokens—and snatching up all this wonderful artwork for themselves. The idea is to decentralize and democratize art, only Metakovan controls the token supply.

What’s interesting is that Beeple, the creator of the artwork, is actually a business partner of Metakovan’s. He owns 2% of all the B20 tokens. I’m sure there is no conflict of interest here.

WhaleStreet hosted the B20 sale on Jan. 23. Apparently, 1.6 million B20 tokens were sold to the public for $0.36 per token. After the Christie’s auction, B20 shot up to $23. It’s now down to around $16, according to Coinmarketcap. That’s a nice profit for anyone who got in early—and worth over $3 million for Beeple, if he dumps his coins quickly and there’s enough liquidity to actually sell them.

At the end of the day, this is a straight-up initial coin offering-style index fund to speculate on NFTs, with a twist: Metakovan owns most of the tokens—and he has an existing business relationship with the artist.

I wonder if Metakovan anticipated having to pay this much ETH to Beeple for his “Everydays: The First 5000 Days”? Metakovan knew he needed the artwork for his index fund. But did he expect Sun to keep bidding the price up to the very last second?

Also, in an earlier version of this post, I questioned why we can’t see the blockchain transaction—which was supposed to be 42,329.453 ETH. If we can’t see the transaction, how do we know that Beeple actually got paid for the sale and is not in cahoots with Metakovan to make number go up?

I now have a theory.

As Christie’s spells out in its conditions of sale, the transaction needs to come directly from a digital wallet maintained with Coinbase Custody Trust, Coinbase, Fidelity Digital Assets Services, Gemini Trust Company or Paxos Trust Company. And it sounds like the funds may even have gone into Christie’s escrow wallet.

Anyhow, if both parties had Coinbase accounts, the exchange could just change the database records off-chain to flip account balances. In this way, Coinbase acts like a second layer, and you wouldn’t see the ETH transaction.

When all was said and done, the Christie’s auction turned out to be a sweet deal for Beeple who now has a reason to shill crypto to his 2 million Instagram followers. And Metakovan gets publicity for his ICO project, so his own personal B20 holdings rise in value.


Since I published this article, Sundaresan has written to me and asked me to take it down. I refused, but agreed to make edits if he could point to anything specific that was wrong—so far, he hasn’t.

I’m posting Sundaresan’s full comment on the matter below:

Hello Amy, I am replying to address your concern about coins-e as relating to me. Definitely there are several factual inaccuracies in your blog post and your tweets. I would appreciate if you would temporarily pull down the posts until you have the facts right, as such a post causes unnecessary FUD and obviously it is your choice to not take it down. But if you do it will show that your intentions are in the right place and that you are looking to have a conversation. Regarding coins-e, it dates back to days when the crypto industry was very unorganized and the service itself was quite small and did not warrant a press release when the sale was done. The service was not even big enough to attract the crypto media attention, the service started growing bigger as the Casa crypto was taking over. The transfer happened through a well documented process with assistance from lawyers on both sides. Post the sale I had moved on to build Bitaccess, backed by YCombinator and I have had no link to Casa Crypto after the sale and I have repeatedly addressed this issue via newsletters and Q&As. For the other parts of your question, I believe it shall be better answered by contacting @metapurse and @twobadour directly.

————-

*Beeple’s “Everydays: The first 5000 days” is not part of the B.20 collection. Metakovan and Twobadour told the NYT, they have no plans to monetize the 5,000-image collage “yet.” The B20 collection is anchored by a different set of 20 Beeple artworks that Metapurse acquired in December for roughly $2.2 million on Nifty Gateway.

(March 14, 2021—This article has been updated to add comments from Sundaresan and more detail about Coins-e. Additional updates made later in the day to theorize on why the transaction did not show up on the blockchain, add some Gerard quotes and spruce of the ending a bit.)

(*March 15, 2021—Christie’s accepted its fees in ether—the native crypto of the Ethereum network. When Christie’s originally announced the sale, the auction house said it would accept crypto as payment, but the buyer’s premium had to be in real money. Later it changed its policy to accept ETH, according to Bloomberg.)

Related articles:

WTF is an NFT? Here’s a rundown on the basics

News: Metakovan unmasks himself, FATF goes after DeFi and NFTs, Coinbase pays CFTC $6.5M over wash trades

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