Art Market

KAWS, Murakami, and the Myriad Ways Merchandise Affects an Artist’s Market

Justin Kamp
May 1, 2020 6:48PM

Installation view of “Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats its Own Leg” at MCA Chicago, 2017. © MCA Chicago. Photo by Nathan Keay. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, artists’ merchandise and collectible editions were a force to be reckoned with in the art market. Editioned objects by artists such as KAWS and Yoshitomo Nara might sell for a few hundred or thousand dollars, while their unique paintings and sculptures fetched six- and seven-figure sums at art fairs and auctions. With quarantine forcing the art world to move online and the pandemic pushing the global economy toward a recession, the market for collectible editions may actually adapt relatively painlessly, while collectors hold back on buying the big-ticket lots at the market’s higher end. Suddenly, artists who’ve long made work for both the high-end fine art market and the collectible merchandise and editions market look exceptionally well positioned to weather the coming downturn.

Some of the artists whose practices include collectible merchandise walk the line between commercial success and critical suspicion, while others are beloved by both art-world power players and younger collectors whose bible is Hypebeast. The artists who are most known for their editioned objects include stars like KAWS, Nara, Banksy, Takashi Murakami, Mr., and Daniel Arsham, as well as artists best known within subcultures of toy- and comics-influenced art, like Frank Kozik, Brandt Peters, and Ashley Wood. With those artists who’ve achieved commercial success in both the collectible merchandise and high-end fine art markets, the relationship between the two arenas has not always been clear.

KAWS, Companion (Karimoku), 2011. Courtesy of Phillips.

Banksy, Everytime I Make Love to You I Think of Someone Else, 2002. Courtesy of Phillips.


According to Danielle So, an associate specialist and head of day sale at Phillips Hong Kong, in ordinary times, editioned works by artists such as KAWS and Murakami often function as a parallel market to their higher-priced unique works, serving as a sort of barometer for how the wider public perceives that artist. “In terms of valuing an original painting or sculpture by the artists who create these limited-edition objects, there’s not necessarily a very direct parallel,” So said. “But we do factor in the appeal of the artists relative to the current market, and the market for collectibles definitely serves to inform us of that.”

The auction numbers seem to reflect this. Last April, a KAWS painting sold for $14.7 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, smashing the artist’s auction record and seemingly heralding an era of market dominance. And while KAWS’s collectible objects may not achieve such astronomical prices, a look at the artist’s latest results at Phillips shows that nearly all of his editioned works that recently came to auction have exceeded their high estimates—suggesting there is commercial interest in all facets of his practice, even if the unique and editioned works are, for the most part, relegated to separate auctions.

KAWS, The KAWS Album, 2005. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

While the markets for collectibles and unique works may shift in tandem, broadly speaking, the question of whether their pools of potential buyers have any crossover is a more complicated one. So maintained that for a more traditionally fine art–focused collector, their interest in editioned objects is usually contingent upon a strong passion for a specific artist—a buyer with a deep collection of Murakami paintings, for example, may bid on his figurines, but not on collectibles by other artists.

Most buyers of editioned objects, though, are from a newer class of collectors. So described this class as a younger, more tech-savvy, “fairly niche, but very dedicated” audience that has an entirely different approach to collecting compared to the traditional art auction crowd.

Yoshitomo Nara, The Little Pilgrims (Night Walking), 1999. Courtesy of Phillips.

“Part of the interest in this category lies in watching out for edition sizes, collecting the full set of figures, and the seasonal drop launches that sell out within hours,” So said, referring to the closely watched releases of new figures, editioned sculptures, and prints. She traced this devotion back to the strong brand that many collectibles artists build for themselves through recognizable characters and graffiti- or cartoon-indebted aesthetics.

“You can see it as a little bit of a marketing campaign,” So added. “They have definitely built a brand for themselves, and brands appeal to people because of the comfort of familiarity.”

Installation view of “Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats its Own Leg” at MCA Chicago, 2017. © MCA Chicago. Photo by Nathan Keay. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Michael Darling, the chief curator at MCA Chicago, expressed a similar sentiment about the widespread appeal of artists who make collectibles. The MCA’s 2017 Murakami retrospective saw an outpouring of visitors committed to collecting the associated exhibition merchandise, which Darling saw as an interaction akin to “some kind of fan culture.” But he said the appeal of these objects goes beyond fandom.

“So many of these objects cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars,” Darling said of such artists’ unique works. “Just 0.1 percent are able to own these things and live with them if they’re not hanging on the walls of museums. Making these other kinds of products democratizes their work and allows other people to get in on appreciating Murakami, on living with Murakami.”

Installation view of “Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats its Own Leg” at MCA Chicago, 2017. © MCA Chicago. Photo by Nathan Keay. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Harnessing the power of artists’ merchandise as a democratizing art form was pioneered by Keith Haring, whose Pop Shop opened in 1986 in SoHo. Haring sold pins, stickers, T-shirts, and more through the shop, all emblazoned with his iconic, cartoon-like figures, and all available at price points accessible to the average person coming in off the street. “It’s about participation on a big level,” Haring once said about the store. “I wanted it to be a place where, yes, not only collectors could come, but also kids from the Bronx.”

Peggy Leboeuf, a partner and executive director at Perrotin, said that democratization is the main reason the gallery—known for its role in developing the careers of artists including KAWS, Murakami, and Arsham—offers signed limited-edition prints and objects by nearly all of its artists for sale through the gallery’s bookstore.

Tseng Kwong Chi
Haring Pop Shop Window New York, 1986
Eric Firestone Gallery

“As artists become more established, editions play an important role in keeping their practice open to everyone,” Leboeuf said. “In this way, artists like Daniel Arsham and Takashi Murakami have been able to keep a broader audience while their practice gains acclaim and their original works become more prestigious.”

This approachability is perhaps the most potent aspect of the collectibles market—an interest in editioned objects can serve as an entrypoint into the wider world of art collecting. While collectibles may not have a strong direct influence on how an artist’s unique works are priced by primary market galleries or how they perform at auction, the people buying those collectibles may one day graduate to buying paintings and sculptures at higher price points.

Daniel Arsham, installation view of “Paris, 3020” at Perrotin, Paris, 2020. Photo by Claire Dorn. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

By catering to both ends of the market—the newer, presumably younger collectors in pursuit of more affordable objects, and established, presumably older buyers competing for trophy lots—artists can ensure sustained interest in their output across categories and generations. Just last week, for instance, Arsham debuted a line of Pokémon T-shirts for the Japanese fast fashion retailer Uniqlo. He also saw one of his sculptures, a 2018 plaster rendering of the video game hero Super Mario painted a neon-pink gradient, surpass its high estimate to sell for £40,000 ($49,800) at a Sotheby’s online sale.

That sum was enough to be Arsham’s third-highest auction result, but it’s nowhere near his secondary market high points, both of which occurred in November: a riff on Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” sculptures, which more than doubled its high estimate to sell for $150,000 at a Sotheby’s day sale in New York; and an “eroded” sculpture of a Vogue issue that sold for HK$2.3 million (US$295,469)—more than nine times its high estimate—at a Phillips sale in Hong Kong. Budding Arsham admirers who can’t yet compete at such prices can still connect with his work by snapping up a “Crystal Pikachu” shirt for $14.90 from Uniqlo, or a limited-edition “Field Observation Kit” for €85 ($93) from the Perrotin store.

Daniel Arsham, Quartz Eroded Vogue Magazine 101, 2019. Courtesy of Phillips.

Short-sleeve graphic t-shirt from the Daniel Arsham x Pokémon UT Collection at UNIQLO. © 2020 Pokémon. TM, ®Nintendo. © Daniel Arsham Courtesy of Nanzuka.

“It’s an entry point into other categories because of its considerably approachable range of pricing,” So said of the editioned object market. “We definitely see [those buyers] eventually maturing into collectors who will buy at higher price points, just because they’ve had more experience with the whole auction, and how auctions are being run.”

In that way, collectibles act as a sort of investment—they draw in a new audience, educate them on the inner workings of the art market, and ultimately build their appreciation for a wide array of art and artists.

“It is 2020!” said Leboeuf. “Often, younger members of collectors’ families are chasing exclusive editions, which results in new discussions on artists with their parents. It is a way to perpetuate interest for the next generation!”

Justin Kamp