Sotheby’s Was Hoping This KAWS Painting of ‘The Simpsons’ Would Sell for $1 Million. It Just Went for $14.7 Million

The painting was sold by Japanese designer NIGO, who commissioned the work in 2005.

KAWS, THE KAWS ALBUM, which sold for $14.8 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong, setting a new record for the artist. Courtesy of Sotheby's.
KAWS, THE KAWS ALBUM, which sold for $14.8 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong, setting a new record for the artist. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Is there no limit to the precipitous rise of KAWS, the graffiti artist-turned-fine-art phenomenon who the art world loves to hate?

Today, the artist’s auction record was shattered when a 2005 painting, titled THE KAWS ALBUM, sold for HK$115.9 million ($14.8 million) at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong—nearly 15 times the high estimate and more than five times his previous record of $2.7 million, which was set just last year.

The work was the top lot in the “NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1” sale, which featured the personal collection of Japanese streetwear entrepreneur, DJ, and record producer Tomoaki Nagao, better known as NIGO.

The record-setting painting is a parody of a parody: It recreates The Yellow AlbumThe Simpsons’ take on the Beatles’ famous 1967 album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which replaced the original figures with characters from the animated series. KAWS—whose real name is Brian Donnelly—takes the appropriation to the next level with his “Kimpsons” characters, which have the artist’s signature Xs drawn across their eyes and skull and crossbones heads.

“Brian has made it to the top and is one of the most famous contemporary artists in the world, which makes me so happy,” NIGO told Sotheby’s. The collector met KAWS in 1996 and became an early supporter of his work. In 2005, he commissioned THE KAWS ALBUM, which was shown at the artist’s 2016 retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which later went to the Yuz Museum in Shanghai.

Collector NIGO with his KAWS painting <em>THE KAWS ALBUM</em>, which he sold for $14.8 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong. Photo by Thomas Thompson, courtesy of Sotheby's.

Collector NIGO with his KAWS painting THE KAWS ALBUM, which he sold for $14.8 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Photo by Thomas Thompson, courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The artist’s market has been on a turbo-charged upswing as of late. He only broke the million-dollar barrier at auction last year at a March sale at Phillips London. He did so again four more times in 2018, including one night in November when his auction record was broken three times. By the year’s end, he had an entirely new list of top 20 auction prices, topping out with the $2.7 million canvas Untitled (Fatal Group).

On top of that, the public petite for KAWS’s cartoon figures has shown no signs of leveling off. He was a dominant figure during Art Basel Hong Kong, where his biggest work to date, Holiday, drew massive crowds. The 115-foot-long inflatable “Companion” sculpture spent the week floating in Victoria Harbor, a picturesque selfie backdrop for tourists and locals alike.

But it would have been hard to predict this new auction triumph. THE KAWS ALBUM carried a pre-sale estimate topping out at HK$8 million ($1 million). Other works by the artist in the same sale—UNTITLED (KIMPSONS) and UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #3)—sold for  $2.7 million and $2.6 million, respectively. They are now the third- and fourth- highest priced works by the artist to sell at auction. The white-glove sale totaled HK$216.9 million ($27.6 million) on 33 lots.

It was NIGO’s third sale with Sotheby’s, following “NIGO Only Lives Twice” in 2014 and a sold-out auction of rare Star Wars action figures in 2015.


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