China’s art toy industry is exploding, fueled by an increasing number of young adults jumping into the world of collectibles. From 2015 to 2019, the market grew from 6.3 billion yuan to 20.7 billion yuan, with a significant portion of sales attributed to this new wave of collectors. In a recent report by Xiaohongshu, the market share in toys occupied by 23 to 30-year-old buyers amounts to a pronounced 28 percent.
The craze around toys is not a new one: in pop culture circles, the interest in toys and collectibles has been ongoing and going strong. In particular, Be@rbrick, produced by Japanese company MediCom Toy since 2001, has profoundly galvanized the market, chalking up countless collaborations with streetwear brands, popular TV shows, and artists.
These art toy partnerships show no signs of slowing, with figurine collection group ArTy ReTro recently enlisting celebrated Chinese contemporary artist, Zeng Fanzhi, for a range of collectible toys. Meanwhile, more than 100 toy creations by American sculptor and designer, Jason Freeny, are currently on view and up for sale at his experience store, “OUTSIDE IN: An Unconventional World of Art Toys,” at Hong Kong’s K11 Art Mall.
It’s no surprise, then, that luxury brands and cultural institutions have been embarking on collaborations with artists to develop toys of their own. Toy brands have the attention of young audiences, while brands and museums guard the intellectual property (IP) and designs that are ripe for reinterpretation. The result is a harmonious marriage that has produced many exciting collectibles — with more to come.
The luxury crossover
Earlier this year, German luxury goods brand MCM tapped ROBBi, a robot/rabbit character masterminded by Chinese creative agency C-art, to create 2,000 limited edition toys. Covered in the iconic MCM print, the rabbit figurine was a hit among young Chinese consumers, thanks in no small part to social media boosts by KOLs. This successful artist and brand collaboration trails many others that have seen artists from Takashi Murakami to KAWS aligning with the likes of Louis Vuitton and Dior to release toys and other products. The hype — emerging from limited releases and special collaborations — generates a sense of exclusivity around these figures, ensuring they sell out in minutes, while presenting a new market of opportunity for many luxury brands hoping to attract Millennials.
Toying with art
It’s often for this latter reason — to attract a younger audience — that museums have set their sights on the art toy space, and partnerships with artists and toy makers. As cultural institutions hold the IP rights to facilitate toy companies in transforming artwork into figurines, collaborations are the obvious route to drive cultural interest and accessibility.
Notably, POP MART, a leader in the figurine craze, recently invested heavily in the Beijing-based contemporary art museum M Woods, cementing a union that will blend art and lifestyle to reach a younger demographic. According to M Woods founder Lin Han, their collaboration will “jointly power the consumption upgrade of China’s popular art scene, while facilitating communication between Chinese and global artists”.
Likewise, the Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum in Shaanxi has reimagined its iconic Terracotta Warriors statues as limited edition figurines. The Sanxingdui Museum and Beijing’s Palace Museum have also both released numerous figurines of their priceless artifacts, harnessing their IPs to create stylized versions of their relics. The popularity of these collectibles is evident, with Sanxingdui’s models earning the museum $1.4 million in 2019.