Why Is KAWS Art So Expensive?
Artwork by blue chip artist KAWS has seen enormous attention in the secondary market and is a favorite of many Contemporary art collectors. But what about these characters and parody paintings is convincing people to purchase them at such a high price? The answer is in the cult following around certain brands and artists.
History Of KAWS
Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS, started in the art world as an animator by day and graffiti artist by night.
An illustrator by trade, Donnelly is the man behind the cross-eyed mask. In the 1990s, New York City began to be plastered with advertising, taking up a great deal of physical space which street artists could otherwise employ as canvases to spray paint on.
Instead of relenting to back alleys or beneath bridges, Donnelly could deface billboards and bus stops, introducing his characters like Companion and Chum in addition to his tag name, KAWS.
These notable figures would later take on a permanent and three-dimensional form as his popular figurines, also referred to as toys.
Art toys, also called designer toys, are collectibles made in limited quantities by designers and artists, often in collaboration with toy companies.
KAWS is among the most popular contemporary artists today, known for his art toys. KAWS’ toys are variations of his beloved characters from his earliest days as an artist and this consistency has rewarded him a horde of loyal followers and fans, along with a high valuation at auction. According to Christie’s, KAWS’ figures can sell for varying amounts, ranging from as little as $15 to an astonishing $2.4 million in art auctions.
Why Are These Figures So Expensive?
Manufactured products usually have a fixed or average price because their usage is defined. Art is a unique asset in the sense that the value is set by historical pricing and demand of the artwork. There is obviously a market for KAWS figures and artwork due to their presence in pop culture and the hype from celebrity collectors.
Additionally, the more expensive pieces from KAWS are limited editions from his many collaborations with brands like Dior. The availability of fewer pieces creates an air of urgency and exclusivity.
KAWS toys usually sell out very quickly, when they are released, collectors are more concerned with the notion of being able to acquire one than the price.
KAWS figures become accessible through “drops,” which is when a collection becomes available through the artist’s site. Drops can sell out for these desirable collectible figurines in hours or even minutes. His traditional artwork is even more challenging to acquire without going through a dealer or gallery.
Looking closely at the pricing of KAWS’ figures, they are also affected by other factors such as size and version.
KAWS figures, in particular, come in various sizes apart from the traditional 18-inch height. Some are small, not measuring more than a keychain or even life-size. Others are massive installation giants meant for large exhibition spaces.
Because the artist works with different collaborations when creating these characters, there are various different kinds of positions, imagery, and colorways for the figures. Each of these plays a role into the valuation of the figure based on the reception and scarcity of the collection.
However, the driving force behind the success of KAWS is his cult-like following and impact on hypebeast culture.
What Is Hypebeast Culture?
In popular culture, hypebeast refers to a collector of luxury goods, whether apparel or accessories, that people use to raise their social status.
This pool of individuals focused on hypebeast collections soon became trendsetters and forecasters. These hypebeast brands cultivate value through “drop culture,” which is how KAWS releases new artworks.
Drop culture involves releasing limited-edition products or capsule collections at select stores or times, creating an artificially fierce sense of exclusivity.
Driven by the illusion of scarcity, pricing for these items increases when it reaches the secondary market site, such as Stock-X.
This sense of exclusivity creates materialistic tendencies — the more expensive and sacred the goods are, the greater the prestige. This mentality is also found in the art market revolving around hypebeast artists such as KAWs and Alec Monopoly.
The celebrity connection is essential for the hype around KAWS’ artwork. Celebrities such as Pharrell and Drake are proud collectors of the Brooklyn-based artist. The association between artists and collectors can influence the public to purchase similar artwork for themselves, a trendy variation on a typical pattern in the art market already.
What is undeniable about the hypebeast culture and the artists that they choose to amass is that their set of trends, despite being more heavily influenced by the commercial and mass-produced editions, still impacts the market of the more exclusive one-of-one artworks.
The Bottom Line
While KAWS is an artist celebrated for making his art more accessible, whether through collaborations or editions, there is no denying that much of his work is still highly sought after and has led to increased pricing. The trend of hype revolving around the drop culture of his limited works then feeds into his overall market as an artist.
The hype and high prices can be attributed to their excellent quality and artistry, the emotional nostalgia some of these pieces elicit, as well as the name KAWS has made for himself in the industry.