In January 2019 , the world’s only complete collection of Supreme skate decks in private hands was sold for a staggering US$800,000 at a Sotheby’s auction. The buyer? Carson Guo, a 17-year-old based in Vancouver.
Three months later, Sotheby’s sold out all 33 lots in its NIGOLDENEYE Vol. 1 auction for HK$220 million. The pieces – which included rare items such as early prototypes and commissioned works, ranging from paintings to shoes to handpainted figurines – were from the personal collection of cult fashion designer and music producer Tomoaki Nagao, who is better known as Nigo. He’s also the founder of streetwear brand A Bathing Ape. The highlight was THE KAWS ALBUM – a 1m-by-1m work parodying The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. It set a new auction record for a work by KAWS (real name: Brian Donnelly) at HK$116 million, 15 times the estimate.
A Bloomberg report on the auction described the scene as being “suddenly a lot hipper, with all these cool millennial buyers in hoodies”. One of the bidders, who paid HK$20.5 million for KAWS’ Untitled (Kimpsons #3) in the same auction, was a “young Chinese buyer with a short back and sides haircut, who was wearing a green army camouflage jacket”.
On June 27, a collection of 131 full-sized skateboard decks produced by Supreme between 2011 and 2019 was sold in a single lot to a “young Chinese collector” for £125,062 at Bonhams’ Modern And Contemporary Art sale in London.
Socio-economic status and family upbringing are often key factors that influence the purchase preferences of this demographic. Citi Private Bank Art Advisory Specialist Edie Hu shares: “Many of the collectors buying street art are in their early 20s to 40s. Some young collectors may have support from their parents, who may also be art collectors, and want to encourage their children to start collecting and buying art wisely.”
Carson Guo’s father, for instance, is Guo Qingxiang, the art curator for Dalian Wanda Group. The senior Guo made headlines when he snapped up Picasso’s Claude et Paloma for US$28 million in a 2013 Christie’s auction, and Monet’s Bassin aux Nymphéas, les rosiers for US$20 million in 2015 at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art auction in New York. Carson’s elder sister, who has a degree in art history from the University of British Columbia and is a fine-art collector herself, is also Guo’s mentor.
Carson says: “I love the advanced and free-minded culture behind Supreme, and the rarity of its products, especially the collaborations with many other respected brands. I discuss every purchase with my dad and do a lot of research to make sure that I know what I’m really buying.”
Yuki Terase, Head of Contemporary Art Asia at Sotheby’s, says that young collectors are a growing phenomenon, particularly in Asia. In the past few years, collectors under the age of 40 form over 20 percent of the auction house’s clients in Asia. Case in point: Forty percent of the buyers at Sotheby’s inaugural Curated: Turn It Up auction in June – which featured pioneering contemporary art and street art artists, as well as emerging artists – were under 40 years old. As were half the buyers for the NIGOLDENEYE Vol. 1 auction.
Terase explains: “The aesthetic tastes and collecting vision of this new generation of collectors extend beyond the status quo. They are more willing to take risks, and their novel and eclectic approaches to collecting contribute to an increasingly rich and diversified art ecosystem beyond the obvious tiers of blue-chip art. They also tend to prefer brands and artists tied to their own personal and cultural aesthetic.”
Sandy Ma, who is based in South-East Asia as Phillips’ International Specialist in 20th Century & Contemporary Art, says that in the last three years, there has been a surge of Asian collectors picking up street art “in an unprecedented serious manner, with more focus, and at higher figures than ever before”.
She attributes this trend to trailblazers such as Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1970s and ’80s, who not only created art on the streets, but also gallery-worthy pieces that reflected the popular culture of their time. “Much of the contemporary art that we encounter today derives from this legacy, and contextualising street art with these luminaries is hugely important in understanding how this movement started.
“These younger art collectors tend to be in their 30s or 40s, and are becoming increasingly younger in age. Many are successful individuals who develop a personal interest in art through exposure to popular culture, especially in areas where fashion meets art. They have fresh perspectives, an insatiable passion for art, and are not afraid to take chances.”
Ma adds that they are also likely to have an overseas education and be familiar with the practice of collecting art through their parents or grandparents. Their purchases are not restricted only to street art pieces or ones that reflect their own identities and tastes, but are also informed by their roles as custodians of family collections.
During this year’s spring season, the top 10 Phillips auctions across New York, London and Hong Kong were dominated by the works of KAWS, Basquiat and Banksy. At its Contemporary Art Evening Sale in May, American artist Eddie Martinez’s works broke his auction record three times within a day, while Boy with Bubble, a painting by American artist Dana Schutz, sold for 84 percent higher than the original high estimate.
The biggest disruptor to this space is technology, which has opened up a world of opportunities for the auction houses.
According to the latest Art Basel & UBS Report on the art market, 93 percent of millennial high-net-worth collectors had bought art via an online platform, compared to a majority of baby boomers who had not bought art online before. Young collectors are also savvy enough to find their preferred works and artists on social media and engage directly with them.
To capture this tech-savvy group, Sotheby’s launched online contemporary art sales in Asia last autumn. Globally, Sotheby’s online buyers spent more than US$200 million in 2018, while online-only sales tripled in value year-on-year. Terase says: “With everything at their fingertips, these young enthusiasts are evolving rapidly, and, in turn, accelerating the pace of the art market. The online platform is a fitting channel through which to reach and grow the market segment for the younger, more tech-savvy generation, and allow collectors to bid whenever they want.” She cites the example of The Supreme Vault: 1998 – 2018 online-only auction in May, which attracted a “whole new demographic with 70 percent of the bidders under the age of 40”.
Last month, Phillips held its inaugural online-only auction from October 9 to 18. Simply called 24/7, the auction focused on trendsetting collectibles, including rare Supreme accessories, and works by KAWS, along with some by Japanese artists Takashi Murakami and Tomoo Gokita. The sale was held in conjunction with the Tongue + Chic exhibition in Phillips’ Hong Kong galleries in October, which featured one-of-a-kind sneakers designed by the likes of Damien Hirst and Trevor Andrew (who goes by the moniker GucciGhost, because his obsession with the fashion house once led him to make a costume out of Gucci sheets for Halloween).
As with any art purchases, the experts prescribe in-depth research – along with a dose of healthy passion – before rushing to buy the next street art item. Christie’s Prints and Multiples specialists Charles Scott and James Baskerville advise buyers to familiarise themselves with an artist’s iconic themes and consult a specialist to verify authenticity and condition.
Ma sums up the spirit of owning a piece of art: “One looking to buy a work of art should treat it as a purchase rather than a financial investment. Buying artwork should be an emotionally rewarding and enjoyable experience. Any financial gain is a bonus and should be treated as a secondary factor.”