Art

How to Find the Fine Art Collectibles That Are Worth Collecting

Art Market

Ayanna Dozier

We often think of the items within a museum gift shop as just memorable souvenirs. Few would consider these works as purchasable fine art, and yet, recent blockbuster exhibitions—from Jeff Koons‘s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art to KAWS‘s survey at the Brooklyn Museum—have demonstrated that fine art collectibles are collection-worthy works that can be acquired at primary and secondary markets.

The vast majority of these objects fall into the category of fine art collectibles and are often items related to lifestyle or home decor. For example, Kara Walker made a limited number of ceramic sculptures that were functional pitchers in 2014, and this category also includes small sculptures and toys, skateboards, plates, planters, clothing, prints, and more. Artists like Barbara Kruger, Tomokazu Matsuyamaand Takashi Murakami are just a few of the artists currently creating works like these, moving beyond more traditional art objects like paintings or large-scale sculptures.

The Brooklyn Museum’s latest exhibition, Virgil Abloh‘s ‘Figures of Speech,” features its own conceptual store called Church & State, which sells limited-edition items designed for the exhibition by Abloh back in 2019. Here, Abloh has created a tangible example by which audiences, and critically collectors, can begin to reevaluate the gift shop as a space where highly sought-after items can be bought. While items sold in a gift shop may be exclusive, they’re far more democratically approachable than the exorbitant price tags, waitlists, and contacts that accompany buying art through the usual channels like galleries and fairs.

The worthwhile art that is available at the museum gift shop can be easy to miss, so understanding the small details that set a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin apart from a mere paperweight are key for anyone wanting to start collecting fine art “merch.” Artsy spoke with Adam Baldwin, director of Baldwin Projectsand Amy Vardijan, co-founder and director of Lucky Cat Gallery—both of whom specializes in accquiring and selling fine art collectibles—to better assess how collectors can shop the museum gift shop with a more discerning eye.

Collectibles feature big names at affordable prices

Long lines and eye-catching art aren’t the only things the 2014 Koons retrospective at the Whitney was remembered for. It also released limited-edition plates with the company Bernardaud that reinterpreted some of the artist’s previous works. Another round of plates, this time referencing the porcelain dog from his “Banality” series (unveiled in 1988), were produced in an edition of 2,300 for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angelesand sold for $8,000 each in 2015. These plates now sell on the secondary market as fine art collectibles far exceeding their original ticket price.

The porcelain sculptures–slash–plates proved a useful way for novice collectors to acquire work from a blue-chip artist like Koons without shelling out the hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of dollars that his work can sell for on the secondary market. Similarly, Kusama’s ceramic polka-dot pumpkins are an accessible way for collectors to have access to an iconic work by Kusama. Collecting work like this might even prime you to take the plunge to buy other works from the artist, like her mirror balls from Narcissus Garden (1966–2018), which similarly exist in the hybrid space between fine art and collectible.

But just because a work is affordable doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful. Baldwin said that the gift shop is a site where people can find art that speaks to them, and he urged new collectors to buy what they love. “It would surprise you how, for some of our largest collectors, their prized works are not often their most expensive ones—it’s often the relatively inexpensive pieces that have a unique story and meaning to them,” he wrote.

Vardijan further added that the location where a work of art is purchased—be that a gift shop or gallery—should not matter as artists stand behind all the work they do. She explained that “artists take great pride in all work they release to the world, whether it be expensive or not, 1 of 1 or 1 of 1,000. It all stems from the same message and mission.”

How to know what’s art and what is simply a souvenir

There are some telltale signs to help collectors distinguish when a cigar is simply a cigar and not a prized work by KAWS. “If you’re looking for collectibles in the gift shop that hold their value, or even increase in value over time, look for the collectibles that are signed by the artist, have an edition number and size, or a serial number,” Vardijan wrote.

To this end, Vardijans collectors to also look at secondary markets, like auction results, to better understand how the market is valuing fine art “merch” or even the artist’s previous work before committing encouragement to a transaction. In particular, it helps if the artist has an ethos or practice making similar work—Koons, for example, is known for making accessible artworks that resemble everyday commercial goods—because the use of merch may be an established part of their artistic approach.

Another resource that Vardijan also emphasizes novice collectors to use is social media, as the hype that a particular limited-edition plate, pitcher, or skateboard deck receives online will set it apart from mere decor. “I’m always looking for any announcements on new releases, exhibitions, events, brand collaborations,” she wrote. “It’s a great way to see the reactions from fans and collectors as well through comments, shared posts, user-generated content, etc.”

Vardijan continued: “Platforms like Hypebeast and Complex also give insight into the artists that are transcending out of the bubble of the fine art world and into the mainstream pop culture.” Baldwin summed up the sentiment: “As always, knowledge and understanding of what you are collecting is paramount.”

How to shop the secondary market

Of course, because of the time- and inventory-limited nature of gift shops, even if you follow the above channels, it is still possible to miss out on certain collectibles. In cases like this, following the secondary market and galleries who prioritize this kind of work is essential for collectors searching for pieces they missed the first time around.

When it comes to working with a gallery to find collectibles on the secondary market, collectors should look into the areas in which certain sellers specialize. For example, both Vardijan and Baldwin take pride in the way they curate their offerings, but each represents very different segments of the market: Vardijan follows contemporary hype-worthy collectibles, while Baldwin focuses on key prints, editions, and multiples by “what we consider to be ‘era-defining’ artists from the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s,’ he said.

The gift shop can be a key site for collectors to buy in-demand works of art. However, as Baldwin and Vardijan affirmed throughout, understanding what the work is, rather than where the work is located or its low cost, should be the guiding factors to avoid the buyer’s remorse. Ultimately, Baldwin urged collectors to follow and trust what they like.

“We think that a lot of this issue really comes down to the age-old question of ‘What is art?'” Baldwin wrote. “Everything comes of age eventually. As the great Andy Warhol once said, ‘Art is what you can get away with.’”

Ayanna Dozier

Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.

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