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Art Market

5 Essential Tips for Buying Collectible Toys

KAWS, Born to Bend, 2013. Courtesy of Phillips.

KAWS, Born to Bend, 2013. Courtesy of Phillips.

Yoshitomo Nara, Sleepless Night (Sitting)《 失眠夜(坐姿)》, 2007. Courtesy of Phillips.

Yoshitomo Nara, Sleepless Night (Sitting)《 失眠夜(坐姿)》, 2007. Courtesy of Phillips.

At first, the collectible toy market can seem difficult to navigate. The category covers a wide range of artworks, from 2-inch-tall plastic figurines to functional household vases, and many of the artists don’t have a catalogue raisonné to refer back to. Instead, dedicated social media accounts and forums make the digital marketplace transparent for collectors. And even though some large-scale toys by artists such as sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, the range of sizes and editions means that there is a collectible toy for every budget, making this the perfect category for new collectors—if they know what to look for.

Look beyond vinyl figurines

Jeremyville, Birds of the Apocalypse, 2016. Courtesy of Jeremyville.

Jeremyville, Birds of the Apocalypse, 2016. Courtesy of Jeremyville.

Tomoo Gokita, A bathing beauty, 2015. Courtesy of Phillips.

Tomoo Gokita, A bathing beauty, 2015. Courtesy of Phillips.

The art toy movement started with the collectible plastic figurines sold in Hong Kong and Japan in the 1990s, before artists like KAWS, , and founder Paul Budnitz took the trend global at the turn of the millennium. By the early aughts, some of the world’s biggest auction houses started offering the category.
“When we were presented with this term previously, we instantly thought of small objects that were made from vinyl and taken from popular culture,” said Danielle So, head of day sales at Phillips Hong Kong. “But in the past 5 to 10 years, the practice of artists making figurines has really exploded—it has extended from using vinyl as the sole medium to bronze or ceramic.”
Street art expert Roger Gastman noted that the category has also broadened to include lifestyle objects. “Now that people have mastered art toys, they’re seeing what else they can do,” he explained. “They’re creating household objects that have function—a planner, a vase, a flyswatter—and in a sense it’s still an incredible piece of art, but it’s now been given functionality.”

Smaller toys in larger editions are the perfect entry point for new collectors

Jeremyville, Streets of Jeremyville, 2020. Courtesy of Jeremyville.

Jeremyville, Streets of Jeremyville, 2020. Courtesy of Jeremyville.

KAWS, Four Foot Dissected Companion (Grey), 2009. Courtesy of Phillips.

KAWS, Four Foot Dissected Companion (Grey), 2009. Courtesy of Phillips.

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When it comes to toys, often a work’s physical dimensions matter less than its demand. Though there are some collectors who assume a “bigger is better” attitude to collecting, So said that the decision of size is ultimately up to a collector’s own taste, and that newer collectors might be more comfortable starting with more intimately sized pieces.
The most common dimension for art toys is the standard 8-inch figure, but they can range from 3.5-inch-tall minis, which typically cost $10 to $15, to 4-foot-tall figures such as the KAWS “Companions,” which can cost upwards of $50,000. And within these categories, the edition sizes can range from unique to unlimited pieces.
Ronnie Pirovino, who started his personal collection with KAWS toys before transitioning to more institutional artists like , said these lower price points make the category an excellent entry point for newcomers. “At this level of collecting…you can really give yourself some room to hone your voice, your taste, your collection,” he said. “Art toys really represent a gateway to more serious art collecting.”
While new collectors might favor smaller-sized works, when it comes to edition size, those looking for a less expensive purchase should definitely have their sights set on big numbers. “The more exclusive a seasonal launch is, the fewer editions available on the market or the harder it is to get your hands on certain toys—the higher the prices will become,” So said.

Use websites and social media to do your research

Where the collectors of other mediums might need to consult a catalogue raisonné to research a particular piece of artwork, art toy collectors can use online forums and resale sites to find information about a toy’s pricing, provenance, and performance in auction.
In terms of the secondary market, Pirovino recommended researching on online marketplaces like eBay and StockX. “EBay has always been a snapshot into transactions in the market…but it is a place where you have to develop a method of research and analysis,” he said. “StockX is more ‘people are asking for this amount for this piece and it’s selling for this amount’ and there is a clear bottom and a clear ceiling. You can really take advantage of that sort of snapshot.”
Pirovino also recommended following online forums and publications like Hypebeast and Highsnobiety to keep up to date with news of the latest drops. “If you are not informed…you will always be in a place where your purchases are secondary market purchases, which means that you will never obtain retail price release,” he explained.
Social media can also be a useful tool for potential collectors. On Instagram and WeChat, you can pick up tips from established collectors, discover new artists, and increasingly, according to So, buy artwork.

If you’re looking for value, it’s all about the artist and authentication

Jeremyville, Raymundo, 2016. Courtesy of Jeremyville.

Jeremyville, Raymundo, 2016. Courtesy of Jeremyville.

According to art advisor Sebastien Laboureau, “If you want to collect for value, you have to go with a very well-known artist, and objects of artwork that are signed in a clear numbered edition with clear authentication.”
Authenticating art toys is more difficult than in most other categories, however. This is because artists release their work through multiple channels. “While artists are sometimes represented by traditional galleries, they also release prints and editions through their own platforms or through collaboration with brands…as well as through major festivals like ComplexCon,” So said. “Most major auction houses are in close contact with the artist’s representatives to clear works before they come to the market. So if collectors are starting out in this category, I would definitely point them towards going via the auction route,” she added.
Pirovino counseled potential buyers to do their research. “My best advice to someone who’s really collecting and starting to put money into this is to find trusted sources and rely on knowledge bases that are rock solid,” he said.
For collectors who are looking to buy on the secondary market, Pirovino advised shopping at stores like StockX and Toy Tokyo, both of which have an excellent reputation for authenticating their toys. He said that if collectors are looking to buy from a lesser known individual seller, however, it is worth reaching out to an expert to authenticate the piece, or consulting one of the crowdsourced social media pages that have been set up to combat fakes, such as the @fakekawsbusta account on Instagram.

Collect for fun rather than investment

While some art toys do appreciate in value, because of their often unlimited and undisclosed edition sizes, the real draw in collecting this category is genuine enthusiasm and joy. “It’s more for fun and for enjoyment of art itself than for the possibility of having a value increase in the medium to long term,” explained Laboureau.
So emphasized the fun of art toy collection, too, noting that “there’s a very unique collecting culture that surrounds art toys, and part of the passion and interest in this category lies in watching out for seasonal drop launches that sell out within a few hours, edition sizes, and also the idea of collecting a full set of figures,” she said. “It’s definitely all about kind of a rush and excitement for these collectors.”
She added, “The market for this category remains stable and promising…but I think this phenomenon will continue to grow in the years to come, as it constantly appeals to the younger generation of collectors who are tech- and social media–savvy, and those who constantly seek to combine life and art into one.”
Olivia Gavoyannis