Lot 24: JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT (1960-1988), “Untitled,” 1982 (acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas, 72 1/8 x 68 1/8 inches). | Bids began at $57 million. Sold for $110,487,500 (including fees)

 

THE MOST EXPENSIVE WORK OF ART by an American artist ever sold at auction was painted by a black man. A large-scale canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was the top lot at Sotheby’s contemporary art auction last week. It shattered expectations, selling for an astronomic $110.5 million (including fees), an artist record and a groundbreaking auction moment.

Basquiat’s “Untitled” image of a skull on a turquoise blue background was the headliner at the May 18 Contemporary Art Evening Auction at Sotheby’s New York.

The painting achieved the highest auction price in history for a work by an American artist and reached a number of other milestones:

  • Most expensive work by an American artist sold at auction
  • Most expensive work by an artist of African descent sold at auction
  • Most expensive work made since 1980 sold at auction
  • Sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction
  • One of only 10 paintings in auction history to surpass $100 million

Only 21-years-old when he made the painting, Basquiat is also the youngest artist to eclipse the $100 million mark. (In 1905, Picasso was 24 when he painted “Garçon à la Pipe” (Boy With a Pipe),” which sold for $104.1 million at Sotheby’s in 2004.)

“Tonight, Jean-Michel Basquiat entered the pantheon of artists whose works have commanded prices over $100 million, including Picasso, Giacometti, Bacon, and Warhol,” said Grégoire Billault, head of the Contemporary Art Department at Sotheby’s New York. “This extraordinary canvas from 1982 has broken so many benchmarks …but those of us lucky enough to have been in its presence will only remember it’s awesome power. To think that it was created by a virtually-unknown 21-year old is humbling.”

“This extraordinary canvas from 1982 has broken so many benchmarks …but those of us lucky enough to have been in its presence will only remember it’s awesome power. To think that it was created by a virtually-unknown 21-year old is humbling.”
— Grégoire Billault, Sotheby’s Head of the Contemporary Art

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Basquiat’s previous record was achieved in 2016 when a 1982 painting of a horned devil sold at Christie’s for $57.3 million (the fifth most expensive work of art sold at auction that year). The buyer was Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. The e-commerce entrepreneur is the same collector who nearly doubled the benchmark when he purchased the skull painting, also created in 1982, for a record-shattering $110.5 million. The last time the skull painting was on the market was 1984 when it sold at Christie’s for $19,000. Maezawa posed with the painting at the preview exhibition prior to the auction and posted the images on Instagram after the purchase. “Happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece,” he said.

 

A BROOKLYN-BORN GRAFFITI ARTIST, Basquiat became a singular presence when he transitioned into the 1980s downtown New York art scene where Andy Warhol was both his mentor and close friend. Young and black, his perspective was otherworldly. Expressing complex ideas about race and culture, his abstract paintings featured text, figures, and symbols such as crowns, and paid tribute to “famous negro athletes,” jazz legends, and progressive pro-black figures such as Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey.

Basquiat has hovered at the top of the auction market for years. Formed in 1993, the authentication committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, ceased authenticating works in September 2012. (The decision followed similar actions by entities representing Warhol and Jackson Pollock, and later Keith Haring.)

In the 15 years hence, the Basquiat’s auction high has increased tenfold, tracking with the explosive increases seen across the upper reaches of the art market. In 2016, Basquiat works became the highest-grossing by an American artist at auction, according to Artprice and TEFAF (p.38), generating more than $172 million.

Posting sales of more than $57 million and $110 million a pop, Basquiat has achieved levels far beyond any other black artist, living or dead.

His closest contender is David Hammons, whose “Untitled” (2000) basketball chandelier sold for more than $8 million (including fees) in 2013. The sculpture was consigned by the artist who benefited directly from its auction yield. The record sale has thus far been an outlier, with Hammons’s high mark since standing at $3.5 million.

Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Chris Ofili, Glenn Ligon, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby are also among the most expensive artists of African descent, with top auction prices for their works hovering in the the $3 million to nearly $6 million range.

In a lot essay, Sotheby’s described Basquiat’s record-breaking painting and its impact: “The overwhelming visual dynamism of ‘Untitled’ vehemently declared the arrival of the brilliant, then virtually unknown young artist into a world that would be forever transformed by his paintings. In an explosive torrent of gestural vigor, ‘Untitled’ embodies the indomitable force of Basquiat’s creative insurgency, which, in a flourishing conflagration of word, color, and mark, sent shockwaves through downtown Manhattan in the early 1980s and inaugurated a radical return to figurative painting.”

“The overwhelming visual dynamism of ‘Untitled’ vehemently declared the arrival of the brilliant, then virtually unknown young artist into a world that would be forever transformed by his paintings. In an explosive torrent of gestural vigor, ‘Untitled’ embodies the indomitable force of Basquiat’s creative insurgency…” — Sotheby’s

Nearly three decades after his death from a drug overdose at age 27, Basquiat maintains a commanding presence in the art world. The style of his work; his humor, insights and acuity; and the social and political issues he addresses, remain as relevant and fresh as ever. More than just a moment, the contemporary era is arguably the age of Basquiat. CT

 

READ MORE about artist resale/royalty rights here and here

READ MORE about “Why Art Authenticators are Running for the Hills”

READ MORE about the state of the global art market: TEFAF Art Market Report 2017

 

BOOKSHELF
A pair of volumes accompanied the exhibition “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks,” the first-ever survey of the rarely seen notebooks of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which featured handwritten, doodles, notes, and poems. Also titled “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks,” the catalog documents the traveling exhibition, while “The Notebooks” offers a facsimile edition of the words and images the artist jotted down, reproducing for the first time pages from eight of his rarely seen notebooks. “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Words Are All We Have” considers the role of language in the artist’s work.