Has the Hypebeast Collector Gone Extinct or Simply Evolved? It Depends Whom You Ask

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in On Balancethe ARTnews newsletter about the art market and beyond. Sign up here to receive it every Wednesday.

Community has always been key to the art world. As one well-regarded collector told me at Art Basel Miami Beach this past December, attending the fair and the parties—even choosing what to buy—was really about being part of a community.

“Half the point of going to any fair is getting to see your friends and hearing, in person, about what they are interested in, you know? What caught their eye,” he said. “That’s why the pandemic was so hard.”

Of course, the art world is hardly a monolith. Collectors are more like different species under a common genus. Old Master drawings collectors are usually quite different from contemporary art collectors, after all. But one species of collector that flourished throughout the 2010s has become increasingly rare in our post-COVID era: the hypebeast collector. That designation we might append to those newer collectors coalesced around street art legends like Banksy or the contemporary inheritors of Pop art like Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS), both of whose markets have become doughy despite a firm high just before and during 2020. But, in talking to collectors and experts across the market, it’s unclear if the hypebeast collector disappeared from the market, or simply evolved.

For many such collectors, KAWS was the starting point. The artist first made his mark as a New York street artist in the ’90s, before his Mickey Mouse figures with Xed-out eyes became ubiquitous in the ensuing decades both in the art world and in his numerous collaborations with fashion brands and consumer goods makers. Collectors began to follow his career on the internet, and eventually entered the market.

“KAWS had a lot to do with opening access for a wider audience to the art world,” John Marquez, a Miami-based collector and real estate developer, told ARTnews.

Marquez was an early collector of KAWS’s work, which he saw being as much about the community as the aesthetic. It led him to an interest in emerging artists and other successors to Pop art that has since grown into Marquez Art Projects, an 8,000-square-foot Miami nonprofit where he exhibits his prolific collection of works by the likes of Javier Calleja, Ryan Schneider, Stefan Rinck, Emily Mae Smith, and Nicolas Party.

“Without KAWS, perhaps I wouldn’t have known about [Pop artist] Peter Saul. For me, there’s really a straight line between the two,” he said.

While many KAWS, Banksy, and Futura fans evolved, like Marquez, into more sophisticated collectors, just as many perhaps simply exited the market, according to art adviser Adam Green.

“There are also a lot of people who got into those artists in the early 2000s and just got tapped out financially in the late 2010s when they began to fetch 10x or more on their low estimate at auction,” he told ARTnews.

Like the rest of the art market, the hypebeast collector was no doubt affected by the ballooning market in 2019 and 2020 that crashed down to earth last year. (Although it should be noted that Bitcoin hit an all-time high on Tuesday).

“It was crazy,” collector Gambriel Wills told ARTnews of prices for KAWS’s sculptures. “When the four footers came out around ’07, they cost $3,000. Then, all of a sudden, they were $80,000, $100,000, $150,000, and up.”

Like Marquez, Wills got his start hunting down KAWS works in the early 2000s, but has since moved on to artists like Hyegyeong Choi and Daniel Gibson.

KAWS’s prices, like that of many artists, seems to have peaked in 2019, which we might identify as the peak of such collectors’ importance. That April, Sotheby’s sold The KAWS Album (2005), a cheeky mashup of the cover art for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Simpsons, for nearly $15 million, far outstripping the $760,000–$1 million estimate. That figure was more than five times his previous high of $2.7 million, set in November 2018 at Phillips for the 2004 work Untitled (Fatal Group). A month after the Sotheby’s sale, Christie’s sold ARMED AWAY (2014) for a more modest $3 million.

Compare those figures to last year’s sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York, which saw works by KAWS hover between $50,000 and $120,000. Most works went for just above the low estimate, and 3 of the 12 on offer were bought in.

The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, another favorite of the hypebeast collector, hit his auction record in 2008 at Sotheby’s New York when his sculpture of a jagged-haired anime character using his semen as a lasso, My Lonesome Cowboy, sold for more than $15 million. Last year, only 1 of the 10 works offered by Christie’s and Sotheby’s exceeded its estimate, Time Bokan – Pink, which went for $756,000 against a high estimate of $500,000. Three lots landed comfortably within estimate, four under the low, and two were bought in.

Even during the 2019 peak, art world cognoscenti hardly accepted the hypebeast collector, seeing them occupy a space similar to that of more recent collectors of digital art and NFTs. In her recent dissection of the art world, Get the Picture, journalist Bianca Bosker recounted collectors and dealers telling her that owning a KAWS often put prospective buyers on a gallery’s blacklist.

Michael Baptist, an associate vice president and specialist in postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, told ARTnews that the peak and plateau experienced by KAWS and other similar artists is not that unusual in the contemporary market. As Baptist explained, works are bought at an accessible price range early, the artist gets very popular, secondary-market demand jumps and so do the prices, the original collectors sell for a profit, and then prices plateau due to oversaturation. What makes KAWS and his ilk stand out, according to Baptist, is that their rise was, in many respects, enabled by an earlier populist era of the internet that is starkly different from the fractious, algorithmically defined one we have today.

“I don’t know if it could happen now because of how accelerated things are and how the internet’s really changed the sharing of information,” he said. “Without a doubt, the timing played a big part.”

Can the populist community that launched KAWS be replicated? There are certainly people out there trying.

Perrotin recently announced a “collaboration” with eBay (essentially an eBay outpost of the Perrotin store on the gallery’s website), and it’s increasingly common for artists to partner with brands, produce multiples, or build brands of their own. Meanwhile, what was the rise of Beeple and the concurrent phenomenon of NFTs if not an attempt to re-create (and supercharge) internet communities around populist art?

The hypebeast collector may have been a natural, if highly specific, side effect of that earlier version of the internet. While those collectors seem to have moved on, either to wider collecting or even another genre—there’s always sneakers—it is likely not the last we’ll see of that phenomenon, even if the names of the artists and the collectors change.

It likely won’t be the last we hear of KAWS either. After all, the artist has three exhibitions opening this year, at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (May 18), the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, NY (July 14), and the Drawing Center in New York (October 10).





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