How to Start Collecting Works by KAWS


Ex-illustrator turned artist KAWS (real name Brian Donnelly) straddles the worlds of fine art and design. Covering everything from editioned prints to large-scale sculptures, installations, limited-edition toys, and Nike Air Max 90s, the artist’s oeuvre is among the most diverse and popular in contemporary street art today.

KAWS has nearly 4.5 million Instagram followers, and his work has seen some eye-watering auction records. His most expensive work to date is THE KAWS ALBUM (2005), which reached $14.77 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April 2019. The work is a smart appropriation of “The Yellow Album” from The Simpsons, which is itself an appropriation of The Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band album cover.

The artist’s prolific output and varied price points can be confusing for first-time collectors looking at where to begin. For a start, price points for KAWS artworks range enormously, explained Adam Baldwin, director of Baldwin Contemporary and a specialist in the artist’s market. “For example, in the last month we have sold a pair of KAWS chopsticks for $75, and a large sculpture in an edition of three for nearly $850,000,” he said.

The Companion figure is central to all of KAWS’s artworks. Based on Mickey Mouse, KAWS reworks the classic cartoon character by adding dark elements such as skulls, X-eyes, and dissected bodies to create his own, now-iconic figure. “Building off this core, some of KAWS’s most notable series include ad-disruptions, package paintings, Chum, BFF, and Holiday—the latter of which is a traveling exhibition featuring a different large-scale sculpture,” said Alan Zeng, head of street art at Artsy.

According to Zeng, “As a new collector, the quickest and easiest way to enter the market is through buying an urban vinyl toy. These are KAWS’s most readily available works. These editions are released directly from KAWS and he will post on his Instagram, as well as send out a newsletter to his website’s mailing list ahead of a drop. The vinyl toys are also regularly traded in the secondary market through galleries, art platforms, and auction houses.”

Although KAWS began his career as a graffiti artist and with works on paper, his large-scale sculptures and vinyl toys have come to define his now-classic style and unbridled success. While his small-scale toys—cast vinyl figures, released in open editions—can be bought on the primary market for prices between $500 and $1,000 (with a resale value between $10,000 and $15,000), KAWS’s four-foot-tall sculptures, released in editions of 100, enter at the higher end of the market and sell for at least $100,000. For instance, the bronze Companion (Passing Through) from 2011 sold for a total of $836,000 at Phillips New York in November 2019, the top price for a KAWS sculpture of this stature.

KAWS’s vinyl toys are in high demand. Once a drop is announced from the artist’s online store, the cutesy figures can sell out in seconds. Baldwin noted that “edition sizes for KAWS vinyl toys are never announced, and although they are technically open editions (which are unnumbered and unsigned), it’s important to note that once a drop is sold out, no more versions of that toy will be made. There is a finite supply of any given KAWS toy.”

In addition to the sculptures, Zeng added that “print editions are a great way to add color and personality to your wall, whether it is one of a single character, full-bleed prints, or a portfolio suite.” Signed, editioned prints start at around $5,000 and tend to be released alongside big shows and exhibitions.

“The two ends of the KAWS market are quite distinct from one another,” Baldwin explained. “Vinyl toys are readily available and sold at most contemporary galleries; however, the higher end of this market is small, specialist, and tightly traded. This is actually very helpful from an authenticity perspective.”

Due to the wider availability of KAWS’s vinyl toys, it is not uncommon to come across fakes of these smaller works for sale. Therefore, the most important thing for KAWS collectors is to be cautious of authenticity. To avoid buying a counterfeit, “collectors should always ask for multiple images of the work, box and packing in different angles (front, side, back, underside), and where it was acquired from along with documentation,” said Zeng. As with most artists’ markets, if something seems too good to be true, it likely is.

Provenance on the KAWS market is much simpler with larger-scale works, where a collector will likely be buying through a specialist gallery or directly from KAWS’s studio. But for older works and sculptures, provenance can be tricky to navigate. KAWS created his first vinyl toy in 1999, and for these older works, it is important for a collector to do their due diligence when buying. “Compare images you receive with official images and ones from reputable platforms,” advised Zeng. “See if there are any inconsistencies or discrepancies in the color, overall design, or stamps.”

Recently, KAWS has begun to take the issue of authenticity into his own hands. In November 2021, the artist filed a $10 million lawsuit against an online luxury retailer selling what he called “deliberate fakes” for trademark and copyright. In light of this, Baldwin said that “more recent releases of vinyl toys have come with certified NFC chips of authenticity.” These tags ensure provenance is digitized, making authenticity easier for collectors now and into the future.

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