The Jean-Michel Basquiat piece “Untitled” Sells for $110.5 Million at Auction

Joining the rarefied $100 million-plus club in a salesroom punctuated by periodic gasps from the crowd, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s powerful 1982 painting of a skull brought $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, to become the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction. Only 10 other works have broken the $100 million mark.

“He’s now in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso,” said the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, an expert on Basquiat.

The sale of the painting, “Untitled,” made for a thrilling moment at Sotheby’s postwar and contemporary auction as at least four bidders on the phones and in the room sailed past the $60 million level at which the work — forged from oil stick and spray paint — had been guaranteed to sell by a third party.

Soon after the sustained applause had subsided, the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa revealed himself to be the buyer through a post on his Instagram account. “I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece,” he said in the post. “When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible.”

It was Mr. Maezawa, the 41-year-old founder of Contemporary Art Foundation, who last year set the previous auction high for Basquiat, paying $57.3 million for the artist’s large 1982 painting of a horned devil at Christie’s. Mr. Maezawa is also the founder of Japan’s large online fashion mall, Zozotown.

Mr. Maezawa later told Sotheby’s that he acquired his latest painting by the artist for a planned museum in his hometown, Chiba, Japan. “But before then I wish to loan this piece — which has been unseen by the public for more than 30 years — to institutions and exhibitions around the world,” he said in a statement. “I hope it brings as much joy to others as it does to me, and that this masterpiece by the 21-year-old Basquiat inspires our future generations.”

The winning bid was taken on the phone by Yuki Terase, who oversees Japanese business development for Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, against the dealer Nicholas Maclean, who was hunched over in the room on the phone with a bidder.

Whether one active collector makes a market remains to be seen. It will take another major Basquiat to test the sustainability of this $100 million level.

In the meantime, however, Basquiat’s vibrant painting set several records Thursday night: for a work by any American artist, for a work by an African-American artist and as the first work created since 1980 to make over $100 million.

Yusaku Maezawa
Yusaku Maezawa via Sotheby’s

“It’s a really historical moment,” said Larry Warsh, a longtime Basquiat collector. “It does cement this artist once again.”

The Brooklyn-born Basquiat went from graffiti artist to an art collector darling in the span of a mere seven years. He died at 27 of a drug overdose in 1988. Last year, Basquiat became the highest-grossing American artist at auction, generating $171.5 million from 80 works, according to Artprice, and his auction high has increased at least tenfold in the last 15 years.

“Here he is, blazing a trail not only in terms of the market but also in terms of how his work is perceived more widely,” said the artist Adam Pendleton, who is African-American. “It speaks to the broader elements of American culture. And what a powerful moment to have that happen.”

Perhaps poignantly, the price exceeded the auction high of Basquiat’s friend and mentor, Andy Warhol, whose “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (in 2 Parts)” sold for an artist high of $105.4 million in 2013.

Sotheby’s sale, which brought a total of $319 million against a low estimate of $211 million with 96 percent of the 50 lots sold, was a contrast to Tuesday night’s lower-energy contemporary auction at Christie’s. Sixty percent of the lots reached prices above their estimates.

“There was more depth of bidding than last night,” said Morgan Long, a senior director at the Fine Art Group, an advisory company based in London. “Sotheby’s had a lot more works in the middle range around $5 million to $10 million that appealed to the market.”

Earlier in the evening, Phillips held its latest auction in its newer format of 20th-century and contemporary art. At that sale over half the 37 lots carried guaranteed minimum prices, emphasizing sellers’ reluctance to consign to auction without a definite sale.

Peter Doig’s “Rosedale
Peter Doig’s “Rosedale,” which sold at Phillips for $28.8 million, an auction high for the artist. The Scottish-born painter is one of just five living artists who have sold for more than $25 million at auction.Peter Doig, via Phillips

Peter Doig’s 1991 canvas, “Rosedale,” of a Toronto snowfall, which was guaranteed for $25 million, sold for $28.8 million to a telephone bidder, an auction high for the artist. As Phillips pointed out before the auction, the Scottish-born Doig, whose grand, painterly landscapes are prized by collectors, is one of just five living artists who have sold for more than $25 million at auction.

The estimate “was aggressive, but it was fresh to the market and had been in a major show,” said Anthony McNerney, director of contemporary art at Gurr Johns, an art advisory and valuation company based in London. Mr. McNerney was referring to the inclusion of the painting in a one-man show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1998.

“Early landscapes with that wintry feel is what people want. It deserved the record price,” Mr. McNerney added.

But the night belonged to Basquiat, and his ascendancy to the summit of the art market.

“It’s mind-blowing,” Mr. Warsh said. “I’m not usually impressed by numbers, but this is really out of the boundaries.”

Mr. Pendleton said the sale underscored the importance of black artists, “not that anyone should need an auction record to make this clear.  “They were when Basquiat picked up his brush in the 1980s,” he added, “and they certainly are today.”

c/o New York Times – By Robin Pogrebin and Scott Reyburn 


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