NEW YORK — The most prominent Bitcoin exchange appeared to be on the verge of collapse late Monday, raising questions about the future of a volatile marketplace.
On Monday night, a number of leading Bitcoin companies jointly announced that Mt. Gox, the largest exchange for most of Bitcoin’s existence, was planning to file for bankruptcy after months of technological problems and what appeared to have been a major theft. A document circulating widely in the Bitcoin world said the company had lost 744,000 bitcoins in a theft that had gone unnoticed for years. That would be about 6 percent of the 12.4 million bitcoins in circulation.
Mt. Gox did not respond to numerous requests for comments, and the companies issuing the statement scrambled to determine the exact situation at Mt. Gox, which is based in Japan. Yet the news helped push the price of a single bitcoin below $500 for the first time since November, when it began a spike that took it above $1,200.
At the same time the news about Mt. Gox was emerging, a New York firm announced plans to create an exchange that could draw the world’s largest banks into the virtual currency market for the first time.
The new exchange is being put together by SecondMarket, which rose to fame a few years ago after creating a platform for buying and selling shares of such companies as Twitter and Facebook before they went public.
Without the trouble at Mt. Gox, the SecondMarket plans would have been seen as a major boon for virtual currencies, providing a potential entry point into the Bitcoin market for large banks, which have so far avoided virtual currencies as their price has skyrocketed.
Barry Silbert, SecondMarket’s chief executive, said that he had already talked with several banks and financial companies about joining the new exchange, along with financial regulators, and that he hoped to have it in operation this summer.
But plans for any new venture will be tested by the collapse of Mt. Gox, which could shake the faith of early Bitcoin adopters. Ryan Galt, a blogger who writes frequently about Bitcoin and was one of the first to circulate the news about Mt. Gox, wrote Monday: “I do believe that this is one of the existential threats to Bitcoin that many have feared and have personally sold all of my Bitcoin holdings.”
On Monday, Mt. Gox took down all of its previous posts on Twitter, one day after its chief executive, Mark Karpeles, resigned from the board of the Bitcoin Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for virtual currencies.
A statement from the chief executives of Bitcoin companies such as Coinbase, Circle, Blockchain.info, and Payward, said that the “tragic violation of the trust of users of Mt. Gox was the result of one company’s abhorrent actions and does not reflect the resilience or value of Bitcoin and the digital currency industry.”
The events are in keeping with the stark ups and downs of Bitcoin’s short existence.
Released in 2009 by an anonymous creator known as Satoshi Nakamoto, the Bitcoin program runs on the computers of anyone who joins in, and it is set to release only 21 million coins in regular increments. The coins can be moved between digital wallets using secret passwords.
While Bitcoin fans have said the technology could provide a revolutionary way of moving money around the world, skeptics have viewed it variously as a Ponzi scheme or an investment susceptible to fraud and theft.
Many leading names in the Bitcoin community were still trying to determine the scope and potential consequences of the troubles at Mt. Gox. A document detailing the purported theft, labeled “Crisis Strategy Draft,” appeared to come from Mt. Gox.
Mt. Gox’s difficulties this week are only the latest in a long line of problems at the Tokyo-based exchange. Created in 2010, Mt. Gox quickly became the most popular place to buy and sell bitcoins. But the firm has suffered several intrusions and technological mishaps, which have led to steep declines in the currency’s price.