5 Essential Tips for Collecting Street Art
Guests look at a painting by Banksy at the (RED) Auction, Gagosian Gallery, 2008. Photo by Scott Gries via Getty Images.
Street cred has long been the most important form of currency for graffiti and street artists, but actual currency has become a close second. Big-name artists who fall into the sometimes-blurry category of “urban art”—including Banksy, Invader, KAWS, JR, and Shepard Fairey—have long cultivated anti-establishment public personae, while simultaneously supplying keen collectors with plenty of unique works and editions of all sorts.
The street art community’s dual imperatives make for a more varied and multi-channel marketplace than many other genres of contemporary art. While some artists sell through traditional channels like major galleries, others release prints and editions through dedicated street art galleries, their own sales platforms, brands they’re collaborating with, social media, magazines like Juxtapoz and VNA, and major festivals like ComplexCon and Pow! Wow! Hawaii. And while works by the most successful street artists regularly come to auction—KAWS even broke into the evening sales this year, and his works now routinely sell in the millions—an alternative secondary market also thrives in online forums and marketplaces.
The number of ways to buy street art—and the unique set of issues that surround the genre—can be intimidating, so we asked urban art experts for answers to some of the key questions aspiring collectors should keep in mind.
How do I know what I’m buying is authentic?
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
For an art movement that prizes authenticity, street art is also very vulnerable to fakes.
“Some artists police the market for their work,” says Rupert Worrall, the head of modern and contemporary prints and editions at Forum Auctions in London, which recently held a dedicated auction of Banksy prints. “Especially as Banksy’s prices have gone up, there are forgeries out there.”
In an effort to stem the spread of fakes, some artists have created dedicated authenticating bodies—like Banksy’s Pest Control and Stik’s Squarity. Others have risen to prominence through more conventional channels, and have major gallery representation to help mitigate the spread of fakes—like the Brazilian twins OSGEMEOS, who show with Lehmann Maupin, or the French photo-muralist JR, who shows with Perrotin. In many respects, so long as collectors are sticking to reputable marketplaces, it’s just a matter of doing their due diligence.
“Collectors should always make sure something is in good condition, and if the artist produces certificates, that should come with the work,” says Worrall. “The market has become very transparent, the prices are out there, so always do your research.”
In terms of the secondary market for urban art, which—self-destructing paintings notwithstanding—is robust, most of the major auction houses are in close contact with artists’ representatives to clear works before they come to market.
“It’s a bit of a different set-up to a conventional artist and gallery relationship,” says Jacqueline Towers-Perkins, a post-war and contemporary art specialist at Bonhams, which organized its first dedicated urban art sale back in 2008. “But I do think that street artists understand the importance of being aware of their work in the market, so there are definite designated bodies or handling services, in the way that Pest Control is the handling service for Banksy, or there is a studio contact that is available to speak on these works’ authenticity.”
Is it ethical to buy works created for the street—like some of the Banksy murals that have been removed from building walls—even if it goes against the artist’s wishes?
The short answer, except when historic artists like Keith Haring are concerned, is no.
One way contemporary street artists and their representatives try to dissuade people from taking their pieces off the street and putting them on the market is by refusing to issue certificates of authenticity for those works, which, in theory, should make them very hard to sell. Still, since the works have often been very heavily documented in the press and on social media (sometimes by the artists themselves), that doesn’t always work.
Just last month, street artist Ron English bought a Banksy mural that had originally been painted on the exterior of a store in London to protest this practice; a previous attempt to sell it ignited controversy for another auctioneer. English said he plans to whitewash his newly acquired Banksy mural in protest of street art’s commodification.
“We’re tired of people stealing our stuff off the streets and reselling it,” he told the Press Association.
Dealers and auction houses that try to sell works from the street by artists who’ve spoken out against the practice do so at their own peril. “There are auction houses in the U.S. that sell these big pieces of walls and appear to make big prices,” says Worrall. But, he added, anyone hoping to work with Pest Control or another artist’s authenticating body in the future will steer clear of such sales. Indeed, the dealers shopping around a half-dozen Banksy murals at an art fair in 2011 encountered difficulties because Pest Control refused to issue certificates of authenticity.
“Especially collecting Banksy,” says Worrall, “you should only buy something that comes with a certificate of authenticity.”
What’s the best way to hear about new work by street artists coming to market?
For most commercially successful artists, the best way to know about their latest work is to sign up for their galleries’ mailing lists and follow them on platforms like Artsy. But even the most established street artists with major gallery representation—like, say, KAWS—tend to do plenty of side projects, from clothing to toys, so subscribing to individual artists’ social media channels can also be a great place to start.
“Learn to follow current artists, younger artists, more emerging artists,” says Towers-Perkins. “Social media is a great way to connect personally, see what they’re up to. Quite often, they’ll be posting new work or posting special projects.”
Beyond social media, there’s a whole constellation of venues for the devoted urban art collector to stay informed. From tracking the brands collaborating with artists to attending events, as well as participating in online forums like Urban Art Association and Expresso Beans—where fans can share details about new or newly available works by their favorite artists—collectors have a bevy of resources.
For Worrall, the Urban Art Association is especially useful. “There are millions of threads on there,” he says. “It’s definitely quite Banksy-oriented, but there are a lot of other artists on there; sometimes [the person posting] is maybe someone who represents them from a gallery, but often, it’s fans who post about the new prints coming out by their favorite artists.”
The online forums are also helpful for discovering new and more affordable artists beyond the biggest names.
The street art market seems to be dominated by a dozen hugely popular artists; are there other street artists worth collecting?
“There’s two ways of collecting street art,” says Towers-Perkins. “You could be supporting new, young talent and connecting with them—it’s so democratic in that way. But there’s also the opportunity now to look back to the late 1970s and ’80s and acquire some incredible pieces by currently undervalued artists.”
She highlights canonical graffiti artists like Dondi, Futura, and Rammellzee, artists who are highly regarded by their peers but comparatively under-represented in the market. That may be about to change in the case of Rammellzee, an innovative hip-hop artist and wildstyle graffiti writer whose work was heavily influenced by science-fiction, and became increasingly elaborate and fantastical up until his death in 2010. A recent survey of his work at New York’s Red Bull Arts New York has helped pique renewed interest in his work.
“There’s been a lot of talk about Rammellzee over the past year and a half,” Towers-Perkins says. “He was absolutely a pioneer of street art, he collaborated with Basquiat and collaborated with Haring, and really broke the mold in so many different ways. Those pieces are only coming onto the market now, and, compared to KAWS and Banksy, are very affordable. It’s a great collecting opportunity.”
Rammellzee was absolutely unique in many ways, but he isn’t the only urban artist of an earlier generation who’s primed for a market revival. Worrall points to a recent string of sales of works by Richard Hambleton, an artist whose splashy, explosive silhouettes were ubiquitous on the streets of Lower Manhattan in the 1980s, and who died last year.
“Sotheby’s sold some of his pieces for big prices, and Maddox Gallery has been showing a lot of his works,” Worrall says. “I’ve seen works of his get 20, 30 bids at auction, so it seems to be going well.” Indeed, in September at Sotheby’s, a large Hambleton painting of a cowboy bucked its high estimate of $50,000 to sell for $225,000.
Early pioneers like Rammellzee and Hambleton may be poised for big things. Meanwhile, figures like Invader, JR, Fairey, OSGEMEOS, Barry McGee, and Swoon continue to have a steady stream of shows and works coming onto the secondary market, while frequent collaborations with brands and affordable editions mean there are works available at many price points, from the low hundreds to six-figure sums and above.
What’s the difference between buying unique works, prints, editions, and ephemera?
Street artists are generally best known for the art they make, well, on the street. But many tend to produce a huge range of works, from limited edition objects like skateboard decks and toys to licensed, mass-produced goods like hats and shirts, as well as more conventional fare like signed and numbered prints, and unique works like paintings and sculptures.
“It all falls into fairly clear categories of unique works, editions, and ephemera,” says Towers-Perkins. “It’s about what that collector would like to acquire. Is it a work of art that has been conceived as a work of art, or is [it] part of an interesting history surrounding the artist and street art as a whole?”
And while the unique works do command the highest prices and turn up at major auction houses, the more affordable editions and objects can be a great entrypoint for new collectors or more experienced buyers looking for something different.
“Graffiti and urban art is a great place for collectors to start because you can buy very affordable editions, for under £100, and they’re often quite striking,” says Worrall. “For the artists producing these works, it means they can cater to the demand, which spans from people with lots of money to your normal person who really likes Banksy, KAWS, etc., [and] can’t really afford the high-priced things, but are nevertheless able to afford a work of art by them.”
In other words—and this will sound corny, but there’s truth in it—the market for street art is like the ethos behind the movement.
“One of the wonderful things about street art is that it is open, and the idea of it is that there is less elitism and fewer barriers,” says Towers-Perkins. “There’s that sense of democratizing and really opening things up to so many different audiences.”