Although you’d never know it by looking at the strapping, Harvard educated, billionaire Winklevoss twins, the former Olympic rowers view themselves as underdogs.
“They always saw themselves fighting to prove something,” Ben Mezrich, who spent a year hanging out with the so-called Winklevii for his book “Bitcoin Billionaires,” told The Post. “They never viewed themselves as privileged. They have always been underestimated [in tech] because they are jocks.”
But no one should underestimate Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss’ ahead-of-the-curve instinct.
The twins were on the ground floor of Facebook’s creation before, they allege, Mark Zuckerberg used their idea to start a competing social network. Their Gemini Cryptocurrency Exchange, founded in 2015, is one of the largest marketplaces for crypto, and the Winklevosses are two of the first Bitcoin billionaires. They now stand at the forefront of the NFT movement, with their Nifty Gateway clearinghouse for digital art, and already have their next ventures lined up.
Through their company Gemini Capital, the 40-year-old brothers are poised to launch a credit card with a twist: Instead of wooing customers with airline miles, the card will reward them with fractions of cryptocurrency for each dollar spent. And last month it was announced that Winklevoss Capital had invested in a company looking to end “extinction” by bringing back the woolly mammoth.
But Amir Soleymani doesn’t think of the brothers as champions or underdogs.
“They are bullies,” said Soleymani, a 45-year-old art dealer in Liverpool, England. “They have a habit of being greedy and trying to take everything for themselves.”
In court papers filed as part of an ongoing legal matter with the Winklevosses’ Nifty Gateway, he alleges that the company has frozen his digital wallet, which contains art purchased for hundreds of thousands of dollars — and now, Solemani told The Post, worth more than $1 million — and is holding it until he pays $650,000 for art he does not want and did not realize he was purchasing at auction.
A spokeswoman for Nifty Gateway said the rules of the auction were straightforward: “Mr. Soleymani’s evolving story about his experience on Nifty Gateway continues to be detached from reality and the experience of other participants on our marketplace. Unlike Mr. Soleymani’s story, the structure of our auction was clear to participants and never changed.”
Soleymani disagreed. “The auction was like a trap,” he said. “ Once you were in, there was no way out.”
It’s not just their jock reputations that have tarnished the Winklevosses in Silicon Valley. Utopian-leaning boosters of crypto and NFT view the brothers with a suspicion that dates back to the Oscar-winning 2010 film “The Social Network,” about the founding of Facebook. In it, the brothers are portrayed as all-business villains, while Zuckerberg is seen as the revolutionary rebel.
Initially, according to “Bitcoin Billionaires,” the brothers were so despised that start-ups refused to take their money for fear of alienating Facebook. But they found entry into the cryptocurrency world as investment partners with a pothead computer wizard, Charlie Shrem. After Shrem was arrested in 2014 and sent to jail for charges that included money laundering, the twins founded Gemini Cryptocurrency Exchange, specializing in the buying, selling and storing of crypto.
“Sometimes [the Winkleviosses] claim that they got into Bitcoin because of the philosophy,” said Merav Ozair, a financial technology professor at Rutgers Business School. “But I think they got into it because they could make money. The [original] premise of cryptocurrency was ‘for the people by the people,’ but greed got in the way and it all became lurid.”
Now, some say the NFT market is going the same way. In March, a digital-only artwork by Beeple — aka South Carolina graphic designer Mike Winkleman — sold for $69.3 million at Christie’s made him the third most valuable living artist. (This, despite critic Ben Davis of Artnet News describing Beeple’s work as “BroBible-level brain farts.”) The twins wanted in on the action: In May, Nifty held an auction for Beeple’s “Abundance,” which features what looks like a tall, naked Golum with wings.
Soleymani’s troubles with the Winklevii began when he finished third in the bidding for “Abundance.”
“The price went to $650,000 and I bowed out,” said the collector. “Then I got a call from a [Nifty Gateway] staff member named Tommy. He said to me, ‘Mate, when are you going to pay the $650,000?’ I told him that I was not going to pay $650,000 because I did not win the auction.” (The top bidder, at $1.2 million, was Taylor Gerring, founder of a cryptocurrency called Ethereum.) “Tommy told me that I needed to read the terms.”
The terms decreed that the first 100 finishers would pay their losing bid for a group of pieces by Beeple, including a higher-numbered edition of “Abundance.”
But Soleymani said that the clause was added less than 24 hours prior to the auction. “I feel that they hid this information. I wanted ‘Abundance’ number 1, not number three,” he said.
When he refused to pay, Nifty locked Solyemani’s access to around 70 NFTs he had purchased through the company.
“Because Nifty Gateway keeps my work in a wallet on its site, they have the ability to freeze my account,” said Soleymani. “I knew they could freeze my account [for non-payment] but I did not think they could freeze my assets. It was a betrayal.”
A source close to the company told The Post, “Since July 23, [Soleymani] has been able to withdraw his assets from the platform.” But Solyemani said his account was still inaccessible as of Friday.
Nifty lawyers filed private arbitration against Soleymani in an effort to get the money that the company believes it is entitled to. Soleymani’s attorney fired back with a claim of particulars, asking that the case be tried in England.
“The High Court [there] is public; I want this to be tried publicly rather than in an office, behind closed doors,” Soleymani said. “If the law [publicly] finds Nifty, which is owned by the Winklevoss twins, at fault, they are done. They will lose the trust of [the NFT] community.”
Even though the brothers are, according to Forbes, now worth a combined $6 billion, “Money is irrelevant [to them],” Mezrich said. “If they think they are in the right, they go until the end. Honor and right-and-wrong are what make them tick.”
Tyler and Cameron are what’s known as “mirror twins.” Mezrich described it in Boston magazine as such: “If one mirror twin has a birthmark on his right shoulder, the other has one on his left. When one of the twins is a lefty, the other favors the right hand. Where Tyler Winklevoss is more left-brained and analytical, Cameron is more empathetic and goofier. Interviewing them together is like interviewing a single source, because they not only complete each other’s sentences, they also actively think together.”
The twins grew up in the privileged and well-manicured environs of Greenwich, Conn. Their father, a college professor, devised a software that became widely used in the pension industry, and the brothers attended Harvard and Oxford.
After accusing fellow Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg of stealing their idea for the creation of what eventually became Facebook, the twins landed a $65 million settlement from the company in 2008. They took the money in stock and cash, a move that was seen as a gamble at the time.
“The success of Facebook was not a lock at that point,” said Mezrich. “It wound up being worth half-a-billion-dollars [after Facebook went public in 2012].”
Time has not healed wounds, though. “They harbor ill will toward Mark [Zuckerberg],” Mezrich said. “And Mark does not like seeing them as billionaires.”
The author added that the competition goes beyond money. “[The brothers] feel that they are better off now than they would have been if they had stuck with Facebook,” Mezrich said. “It’s incredible how everything has turned on its head. Facebook is now the establishment, Mark is on top of it and looked at as the villain.”
The Winklevii definitely seem to be having more fun than the beleaguered Zuckerberg, who’s plagued with issues of censorship, government investigations and allegations of intentionally addicting children to Instagram, which Facebook owns.
The twin’s punk-and-emo cover band Mars Junction rocked the Knitting Factory this past summer. They’ve been seen partying in the Hamptons with Christie Brinkley and have dated models Natalia Beber (Cameron), Amanda Salvato (Cameron) and Marina Theiss (Tyler). “They ski in the mountains, they vacation in St. Barts, they have been to the Met Ball with supermodels,” Mezrich said. “They are a great second-act story and in America we love second acts. They’re winning now.”
But Soleymani thinks they’re acting like losers. “I really don’t care about those guys,” he said. “I want to expose wrongdoing on the platform. The Winklevosses? Who are they?”