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How to Recover your Lost Cryptopunk NFT

Image source: Cryptopunks Bot on Twitter

Cryptopunks (aka ‘Punks) were one of (if not the earliest) NFT art project published to the Ethereum blockchain. The project was launched by Matt Hall and John Watkinson from Larva Labs in 2017, several months before the launch of CryptoKitties. In addition to their historical value as an extremely early NFT, they were also the inspiration for the ERC-721 (which defines basic functionality to track and transfer non-fungible tokens within smart contracts) , and they have been sold by such well-known auction houses as Christie’s. And, lots of folks just think they look bad-ass.

10,000 Cryptopunks were created and 9,000 were given away for free. While the average price of a punk stayed flat for the first few years, by January 2021 the average price crossed US $1,000, and quickly escalated. At the time of writing in November 2021, the average price is north of $80,000, and individual punks (such as ‘Punk #3100) have sold for as much as 4,200 ETH (about US $7.6 million at the time of sale).

How Many Cryptopunks Have Been Lost?

In an interview with Kevin Rose, host of the Proof podcast, The LarvaLabs founders guesstimated that between 20-30% of punks were held in wallets whose owners no longer controlled their private keys. (Once private keys are lost, the owner can no longer prove that they own the ‘Punk, let alone move them to a different wallet). This estimate was based on the number of wallets whose punks had never moved in the approximately 4 years since the project was launched. (This method of estimating lost crypto based on wallets that have never transacted is widely used in the crypto world).

One such account owns 141 punks that haven’t moved since 2017.

Chris Hutchins, serial entrepreneur, seed investor and the Head of Autonomous Financial Planning at Wealthfront, related his story of losing two Cryptopunks on episode 3 of the Modern Finance podcast.

If we were to place a dollar value on the 2,000 – 3,000 lost punks, with an average sale value (as of Nov 10, 2021) they would be worth somewhere between $165 – $248 million.

So, if you own a Cryptopunk but have lost access to your private keys, how do you get the keys back?

How are Cryptopunks Stored?

Let’s start with some basics. Every cryptopunk is stored at a unique address on the Ethereum blockchain. For example, Cryptopunk #3100 is stored here. As long as the Ethereum blockchain exists, the ‘Punk itself will exist. However, to prove that you’re the owner of that punk, or to change (buy, sell or transfer) ownership, you need control of the private keys that generated the address where the punk is stored.

Those private keys are almost always generated by a wallet, such as MyEtherWallet or Metamask, and those wallets almost always prompt you to create and safely store a wallet backup.

The most common form of wallet backup today is a seed phrase (also known as a “recovery phrase” or “mnemonic”). The seed phrase is typically a series of 12 or 24 words selected from a dictionary defined by a standard called BIP39.

Today, most wallets will require that you write down your seed phrase — and they enforce that requirement by asking you to prove that you remember the words and the order in which they are written. However, this is a best practice, and is not written into the BIP39 standard, which means that not all BIP39-compliant wallets used this approach in years past.

It’s is also usually possible to request your wallet to show you a 64-character alphanumeric version of your unencrypted private key.

In addition to the seed phrase and the 64 character string, wallets also typically store an encrypted version of the private key in a file on the filesystem of the computer or smartphone that holds the wallet. That file is typically encrypted with a password, and you prove that you have the right to access the private key by entering the password.

How are Cryptopunks Lost?

While there may be hundreds of individual variations of these stories, there are only a few categories of ways to lose your keys.

All copies of your private keys are destroyed

These cases are rare — but they happen. Imagine that you had a laptop with your wallet, and you wrote down the seed phrase and stored both in your home. You had no other copies of the private key. Then, your house burned down, you laptop and its hard drive were reduced to slag, and the piece of paper with your seed phrase turned into water vapor and a bit of ash.

In this case I’m sorry to report that your Cryptopunk is irretrievably lost.

You have the wallet, you forgot your password, you don’t have the seed phrase

You’re in pretty good shape here — there’s a decent chance that you’ll be able to recover your ‘Punk.

The first step is to exhaustively search for your seed phrase. Do you have a place that you store important documents, like a safe deposit box, a safe in your home, a filing cabinet, a junk drawer? Could you have taken a screenshot and saved it to Dropbox or your phone’s Photo app? (This strategy is not really safe — once you’ve recovered your ‘Punk, move it to a new wallet and delete those old screenshots!)

If you find a seed phrase and you’re not sure what assets it controls, try it out! (If you have your BIP39 seed phrase you can restore to any wallet that stores Ethereum. Said another way, those seed phrases are portable between Ethereum wallets. Here are instructions for checking that seed phrase on MyEtherWallet).

So, now you’ve looked everywhere you can think of and you can’t find a seed phrase (or your 64-character unencrypted private key). What’s next?

Your path is more complicated — you need to find both an encrypted copy of your private key and your password. Here are a few articles that talk about how popular Ethereum wallets store their encrypted private keys:

Metamask

MyEtherWallet

Once you’ve found the encrypted private key, you need to gather your best guesses for what your password is. We’ll come back to this topic later.

You Have Your Seed Phrase, but it Isn’t Working

If you found your seed phrase and you enter it in a wallet and you get an error — that’s potentially a good sign. It could be that you wrote down one of the words incorrectly, or that you wrote them in the wrong order. Stare hard at that paper — is there any way that you could interpret the letters in one of the words incorrectly? (Ex: could you have written “word” but interpreted it as “work”?)

Next (assuming that your list is in English), check each of the words against this list of the 2048 words that can be in a valid BIP39 seed phrase. If one of the words on your seed list isn’t on the list of 2048 words then there’s an error.

It’s also possible that words can be written in the wrong order — you can always try to sort them by hand, but there are about 479 million possible permutations, so you’re best off doing it with a computer.

If you want help with this, contact us.

If you don’t encounter an error when you enter your seed phrase, but the wallet is empty, it is still possible that you have written a word incorrectly or given them the wrong order. But, it’s much more likely that the seed phrase that you’ve entered is for a different wallet (not the wallet that stores your punk).

Here is an unfortunate truth: most of the time when you recreate a wallet from its seed phrase and the assets that you expected to be there aren’t there, the problem is caused by user error.

Here’s a very common scenario: You created a wallet and stored a crypto asset in the wallet. A week later, you created a new wallet and you saved the seed phrase for this new wallet. Two years later, you have forgotten that you created two wallets — you just remember that you created one wallet, and you believe that this seed phrase controls the wallet that has funds.

You don’t really remember what happened

You know that you got a Cryptopunk when they were initially released, or that you bought one a couple of years later. You just don’t really know where it is now.

Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that with enough work, you may be able to gain control of your ‘Punk. And, with the average value of a sale hovering around $80,000, even if you put 100 hours into the search (which would be an exceedingly large amount of effort), you’ll make $800 / hour plus have an awesome story to tell if you find it! For most people, that’s a good use of time. Keep reading this article.

I have some Password Guesses, But I don’t Know My Password

Here’s the general approach that you want to take:

  1. Develop a list of password guesses, and store them in a spreadsheet
  2. Look for patterns in your guesses, and use those patterns to expand your guesses in the spreadsheet
  3. Mark each of the password guesses that you try so that you don’t duplicate your attempts

This article is specific to the Blockchain.info / Blockchain.com wallet, but it has very detailed instructions for how to systematically test password guesses.

What Wallet Might I have Used to Store My Cryptopunk?

Today, many wallets are designing NFT support into their interfaces. In addition to managing private keys, the wallets can act as galleries to view and manage your art.

However, this wasn’t the case in 2017 when Punks were released.

The original document used to explain to people how to acquire a Punk is still available on Github, here.

(Feel free to chuckle at some of the questions and answers. For example: “How much is a punk worth? Like many things, they’re worth whatever someone will pay. People have spent 10 ETH (around $3,000) on the the rarest types.”

That document states that MyEtherWallet is “the easiest way” to acquire a Cryptopunk. So, if you have no idea what you used, I’d start by assuming that you used MyEtherWallet (also known as “MEW”).

Here are a few other wallets that you could have used in 2017:

Atomic

Exodus

Jaxx

Ledger (hardware wallet)

KeepKey (hardware wallet)

MetaMask

Trezor (hardware wallet)

What if I Used a Hardware Wallet?

Hardware wallets are typically more limited in the number of backup options that they offer to their users. (That’s unsurprising, given that they focus on securing against loss by theft, and they typically have much more limited interface options than software).

Generally speaking, if you lost both the passphrase and the seed phrase for your hardware wallet then you’re out of luck.

I Need More Help

If you’re not sure where to start in finding your Cryptopunk, or you’re 80% of the way home and you need help with seed phrases or passwords, please contact us.