The art world can be a strange place.
While this is a fact well-known to art collectors, even non-collectors got a taste of just how weird things can get earlier this year, when internationally renowned artist/prankster Banksy sold a painting at auction that immediately self-destructed upon its sale.
The piece was placed in a specialty frame in which Banksy had installed a shredder. As the painting was being destroyed, the artist released a tweet that said “Gone … gone … gone.”
The buyer, incidentally, was not disappointed in the outcome – in the span of a minute, he went from owning an expensive piece of art to having a much more valuable, one-of-a-kind item.
“That’s the ironic part about it,” Leon Benrimon, the director of modern and contemporary art at Heritage Auctions, told CNN Money. “It was meant to be a criticism of the art market, and I think it’s going to double the value of the work.”
And while it might be hard to imagine anything stranger than a shredded product taking on more value, the art world may soon be on the verge of becoming an even weirder, less predictable place.
Because the millennial art buyers are arriving – and what they buy, how they buy it and how they relate to it is very different than prior generations.
“The Simpsons,” Dolls, Shoes – The Eclectic World of Millennials’ Collections
In some sense, a recent Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong was about what one would expect when highly anticipated goods are offered to the public from a private collection. Collectors gathered and bid against each other until, by the end of day, $28 million had been spent. But while the program might have been standard, the players were far from the normal auction crowd.
“The auction room suddenly got a lot hipper, with all these cool millennial buyers in hoodies,” Edie Hu, an art advisory specialist at Citi Private Bank in Hong Kong, told Bloomberg. “Their tastes are very different from their parents’, and Sotheby’s is tapping into that.”
The crowd ultimately dropped eight figures on a collection of works inspired by “The Simpsons” television show, as well as skateboarding shoes. The pinnacle of the event, according to those who attended, was the auction for a painting of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover that is populated with Simpsons characters. Created by Brooklyn-based street artist KAWS, it sold to an anonymous buyer for $14.8 million, including fees. That is both a record for the artist and about 15 times the estimated value of the product.
It wasn’t the only big sale for a KAWS piece that day – a millennial Chinese buyer dropped $2.6 billion for a piece called “UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #3).” The work depicts the Simpson family sprawled unconscious on their couch, with the artist’s signature as crosses for their eyes.
For those looking for a bargain, or to get away from the Simpson’s theme, there were also two pairs of sneakers designed for Japanese fashion designer Nigo that fetched $16,000 and an 18.5-inch figure based on the Japanese manga character Astro Boy, which sold for $303,000 (both designed by KAWS).
“I am not surprised by the demand, but I am surprised by the final number,” said Max Dolgicer, a New York collector who has been buying the artist’s work for seven years. “It’s a very fast-moving market.”
And a market where tastes are wide-ranging and often nostalgic. Another area where millennial collectors are a large and growing presence, for example, is in American Girl doll collections. For the uninitiated, in 1986 Pleasant Company released a line of three 18-inch dolls that came complete with historically accurate backstories (chronicled in the accompanying books) and a line of accessories. Pleasant Company and American Girl were acquired by Mattel in 1998, at which point the doll lineup expanded quite dramatically. But for millennial collectors, the original three dolls produced pre-acquisition between 1986 and 1991 (Molly McIntire, Kirsten Larson and Samantha Parkington) are hotly desired collectables.
The good news: A vintage 18-inch American Girl doll will cost far less than the $300,000 that was spent for a KAWS 18-inch doll/figurine. The not-so-good news? It will still be costly, as Dr. Lori Verderame wrote for The Times. An original Molly McIntire in rough shape will go for as much as $1,000 online, and the same doll in mint condition can command over $10,000.
And for those who assume millennials choose their art investments like they choose their television shows – heavily influenced by nostalgia – that might not be quite accurate.
“The great ideological struggles of the 20th century were less immediate to us. We grew up in a comfy, post-Cold War liberal consensus and focused on our feelings. Sure, we debate tax rates and social policy (and sometimes march), but we’ve basically accepted our commercial republic. Unsurprisingly, then, we collect like capitalists,” millennial art collector and banker Evan Beard wrote for Artsy, noting that a lot of business acumen goes into many of these young buyers’ purchases.
The Up-and-Coming Art Collectors
It is probably a fair assumption that the buyer who paid over $14 million for a Simpsons-themed painting that was appraised for less than $1 million in value probably did not do so under the auspice of making a sound investment.
In fact, we would be willing to bet that decision was not run by any kind of finance professional beforehand, so much as it was sheepishly explained to one afterward.
But according to Beard, the lucky buyer is likely more an exception than the rule, since millennials are actually more inclined to treat art as an investment rather than a decoration.
According to data from U.S. Trust, while nearly two-thirds of art collectors list aesthetic reasons for their purchases, only 41 percent of millennial buyers report being led by looks. Instead, 33 percent of collectors in that generation say it is a “safe haven” in volatile markets (as opposed to 16 percent of general buyers), 33 percent see it as an asset that can use be leveraged to build wealth (again, as opposed to 16 percent of buyers in general) and 35 percent report it is an asset they plan to sell for a quick profit (as opposed to 13 percent of the art-collecting population).
And lest one think millennials are, by and large, art capitalists rather than art lovers, the picture is actually a bit more complicated than that. Art collection is an expensive habit – and those who want to get into it often need to be clever about buying and reselling in order to stay in the game.
“I collect because it enriches my life, but it’s certainly become more difficult to on-ramp into collecting,” Nilani Trent, a thirtysomething art advisor told Artsy. “It now requires $50,000 to acquire even the youngest, most untested artists.”
That is a change from the art market of the past, Beard noted, where there had long been an unspoken rule that “collectors are not sellers.” Millennials don’t seem to care about that rule as much as they care about gaining access to the pieces they want. If that requires some fast trading of a painting or the occasional high-value figurine, so be it.
Today, millennials buy far less art than their baby boomer counterparts, though that has been a changing trend in recent years. According to a report from UBS and art economist Dr. Clare McAndrew, the global art market grew 6 percent between 2017 and 2018 to $69.4 billion, reaching its second highest value in a decade. That growth was fueled largely by millennials who were suddenly highly active in the art world.
The generation was both more likely to buy online than other shoppers and also willing to pay more than other shoppers.
It is a trend that UBS predicts will continue – and will, in fact, grow.
Considering that Lyft, Uber, Pinterest and Slack are all planning IPOs for 2019 – and are all valued at north of $10 billion – it seems likely that prediction is right. After all, there will be many more millennial millionaires by the end of 2019.
How many of them will buy art – and how much of it will be Simpsons-themed – remains to be seen.