On April 1st, an artwork by the notorious street artist cum fine arts craze Brain Donnelly, better known as KAWS, set an artist record when his work THE KAWS ALBUM (2005) sold for HK$115.9 million ($14.8 million) and it was no April Fool’s joke. The artwork was one of 33 lots sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong during their ‘NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1’ sale. The white glove auction consisted solely of artworks by KAWS, BAPE (the brand created by the seller), Futura, and Stash from the private collection of Tomoaki Nagao, a Japanese entrepreneur, DJ, designer, and record producer best known by the name NIGO. NIGO has collaborated with a number of artists including KAWS (as seen in the auction), Kanye West, and Pharrell Williams. ‘NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1’ was NIGO’s third sale with Sotheby’s following his 2014 ‘NIGO Only Live Twice’ and a 2015 auction of rare Star Wars figurines.
THE KAWS ALBUM takes parody to a new level. In 1998, the animated TV show The Simpsons released an album of original songs recorded over the prior years. The second album made by the famous yellow characters, though, had a somewhat less original album cover. Featuring a slew of characters from the show, they recreated the Beatles’ 1967 album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band retrofitting the renowned cover art with details from The Simpsons. The 2005 parody of a parody keeps the iconic characters from The Simpsons, but replaces their eyes with KAWS’ hallmark X’s and their mouths with more skull-like jaw. At the bottom, where the original picture read ‘The Beatles’ and The Simpsons’ The Yellow Album read ‘The Simpsons’, one finds instead ‘Kimpsons’ the name KAWS has given his characters.
NIGO met KAWS in 1996 when visiting KAWS studio. NIGO told Sotheby’s that he was ‘fascinated’ by KAWS’ process and that piqued NIGO’s interest in collaborating with the then-street artist. NIGO commissioned THE KAWS ALBUM directly from KAWS. The work featured in a 2016 retrospective for KAWS at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which was subsequently shown at Shanghai’s Yuz Museum.
The record-breaking sale for KAWS shows just how popular the artist has become in a relatively short period of time. Prior to the April 1st auction, KAWS’ previous record sat at $2.7 million from the sale of Untitled (Fatal Group), which sold last year at Phillips London. By the end of 2018, KAWS had become so sought after that his top 20 auction prices were set all in that year. Even the presale estimate for THE KAWS ALBUM was only $1 million. KAWS’ large-scale cartoon figure titled Holiday was a huge hit at Art Basel Hong Kong. The 115-foot-long inflated installation floated in the the city’s Victoria Harbour attracting large numbers of visitors.
In addition to THE KAWS ALBUM, his 2003 paintings UNTITLED (KIMPSONS) and UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #3) sold at the auction for $2.7 million and $2.6 million, respectively, setting records for KAWS as his third and fourth most expensive artworks sold. Overall, ‘NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1’ generated HK$216.9 million ($27.6 million) over the course of the night.