We often think of the items in a museum gift shop as just memorable souvenirs. Few would consider these works art for sale, yet recent blockbuster exhibitions—from the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art to the KAWS survey at the Brooklyn Museum—have demonstrated that collectible fine arts are collectible works , which can be purchased on primary and secondary markets.
The vast majority of these objects fall into the category of art collectibles and are often items related to lifestyle or home decor. For example, in 2014 Kara Walker made a limited number of ceramic sculptures that were working pitchers, and this category also includes small sculptures and toys, skateboards, plates, planters, clothing, prints, and more. Artists such as Barbara Kruger, Tomokazu Matsuyama, and Takashi Murakami are just a few of the artists currently creating works like this that transcend more traditional art objects such as paintings or large-scale sculptures.
The Brooklyn Museum’s newest exhibit, Virgil Abloh’s “Figures of Speech,” features its own conceptual store called Church & State, which sells limited-edition items that Abloh designed for the 2019 exhibit. Here, Abloh has created a tangible example of how audiences and critical collectors can begin to re-evaluate the gift shop as a place to purchase highly desirable items. Although items sold in a gift shop can be exclusive, they are far more democratically accessible than the exorbitant price tags, waiting lists and contacts that accompany art purchases through the usual channels such as galleries and fairs.
It’s easy to overlook the valuable works of art available in the museum’s gift shop. As such, it’s crucial for anyone looking to start collecting art “merch” to understand the small details that differentiate a Yayoi Kusama gourd from a mere paperweight. Artsy spoke to Adam Baldwin, director of Baldwin Projects, and Amy Vardijan, co-founder and director of Lucky Cat Gallery, both of whom specialize in acquiring and selling fine art collectibles, to better understand how collectors shop at the museum’s gift shop can more discerning eye.
Collectibles offer big names at affordable prices
Long lines and flashy art aren’t the only things the 2014 Koons retrospective at the Whitney was remembered for. It also released limited edition records with the Bernardaud company, reinterpreting some of the artist’s earlier works. Another round of plates, this time referencing the porcelain dog from his “Banality” series (unveiled 1988), was produced in an edition of 2,300 for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and sold in 2015 for $8,000 each sold. These plates are now selling on the secondary market as art collectibles, well in excess of their original ticket price.
The porcelain sculptures — Slash Plates — proved to be a useful way for novice collectors to acquire work from a blue-chip artist like Koons without spending hundreds of thousands — even millions — of dollars to sell his work on the secondary market. Similarly, the Kusama Ceramic Dotted Pumpkins are an accessible way for collectors to gain access to an iconic Kusama work. Collecting works like this might even lead you to take the plunge into purchasing other works by the artist, such as her mirror balls daffodil garden (1966-2018), who also exist in the hybrid space between fine art and collector’s item.
But just because a job is affordable doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful. Baldwin said the gift shop is a place for people to find art that resonates with them, and he urged new collectors to buy what they love. “It would surprise you that for some of our greatest collectors, their most valuable works are not often the most expensive – it is often the relatively inexpensive pieces that have a unique history and meaning to them,” he wrote.
Vardijan added that where an artwork is purchased – be it a gift shop or a gallery – shouldn’t matter, as artists stand behind all of their work. She explained that “Artists take great pride in all the work they make available to the world, whether it’s expensive or not, 1 in 1 or 1 in 1,000. Everything springs from the same message and mission.”
How to know what is art and what is just a souvenir
There are some tell-tale signs that help collectors distinguish when a cigar is simply a cigar and not a valuable KAWS work. “If you’re looking at the gift shop for collectibles that will hold their value or even increase in value over time, look for collectibles that are signed by the artist, have an edition number and size, or have a serial number,” Vardijan wrote.
To that end, Vardijan encourages collectors to also look at secondary markets, such as auction results, to better understand how the market values fine art “merch” or even the artist’s previous work, before committing to a transaction. In particular, it helps if the artist has an ethos or practice of making similar work—Koons, for example, is known for making accessible artworks that resemble everyday commercial goods—since the use of merch will be an integral part of their artistic approach can.
Another resource Vardijan also recommends for new collectors is social media, as the hype a particular limited edition plate, pitcher or skateboard deck is getting online will set it apart from mere decoration. “I’m always on the lookout for announcements about new releases, exhibitions, events, brand collaborations,” she wrote. “It’s a great way to see reactions from fans and collectors, as well as through comments, shares, user-generated content, etc.”
Vardijan continued, “Platforms like Hypebeast and Complex also provide a glimpse into the artists emerging from the art world bubble and into mainstream pop culture.” Baldwin summed up the sentiment: “As always, the knowledge and understanding of what what you collect is of paramount importance.”
How to shop on the secondary market
Of course, due to the time and inventory limited nature of gift shops, it’s possible to miss out on certain collectibles even if you follow the channels above. In such cases, it is imperative for collectors looking for pieces they missed the first time to follow the secondary market and galleries that prioritize this type of work.
When it comes to working with a gallery to find collectibles on the secondary market, collectors should look into the areas that certain sellers specialize in. For example, both Vardijan and Baldwin pride themselves on 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 important prints, editions, and multiples of what we” focus on them as “era defining” artists of the 80s, 90s and 2000s,” he said.
The gift shop can be an important place for collectors to purchase sought-after artwork. However, as Baldwin and Vardijan consistently emphasized, understanding what the work is, rather than where the work is located or its low cost, should be the guiding factors in avoiding buyer remorse. Ultimately, Baldwin urged collectors to follow and trust what pleases them.
“We think a lot of this issue really boils down to the age-old question, ‘What is art?'” Baldwin wrote. “Everything grows up eventually. As the great Andy Warhol once said, ‘Art is what you can get away with.’”
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.