Jean-Michel Basquiat
The Most Expensive Artworks Sold at Auction

 

Fondation Louis Vuitton. Paris, FRANCE – 27/10/2018. photos by IBO / SIPA PRESS. (Sipa via AP Images)

 

The years 1981 to 1984 were a brief period of intense artistic output that cemented Jean-Michel Basquiat’s place within the canon of art history. Initially working under the moniker SAMO, Basquiat, a friend of artist Keith Haring and actress Patti Astor, became an integral member of the social circle around the Mudd Club, the night club–gallery hybrid that defined downtown that decade.  In 1981, Mudd Club cofounder Diego Cortez put the 21-year-old Basquiat—then known mainly as a street artist—in a group show called “New York/New Wave,” and he was well was well on his way to fame from there.

By 1983, Basquiat had found his way into the posse of the former Met curator Henry Geldzahler. That year, a discussion between Geldzahler and the artist published in Interview magazine limned the now-famous key elements of Basquiat’s work: royalty, heroism, and the streets. Despite his youth, the artist’s creative agility and his political acumen allowed him to emerge as major force unifying street art with painting, in effect bridging the gap between modes that have historically been considered high and low art. By the time Basquiat died in 27 in 1988, he had become one of the top artists working in New York.

Over the subsequent decades, Basquiat’s stature as an artist would be reevaluated by the very institutions in which he remains under-represented. Basquiat is among the most highly valued artists in the art market, and his work regularly sells for tens of millions on at auction, each of which were completed in the brief period between 1981 and 1984.

#1.
Untitled, 1982

Sotheby’s New-York, 18 May 2017
USD 110,487,504

 

Untitled, 1982
Acrylic, spray-paint and oilstick on canvas
72×68 inches (183.2 x 173 cm)

 

Untitled became the most expensive work by Basquiat to ever sell at auction came to Sotheby’s New York contemporary art evening auction in May 2017, far surpassing its pre-sale high estimate of $60 million. Made as Basquiat’s fame was on the rise, the work features a giant skull-like form against a partially blue background. There was reason for the excitement surrounding the work: it hadn’t been seen publicly since 1984, when it was bought at Christie’s by Jerry and Emily Spiegel bought it for $19,000. The landmark sale established the artist among the top echelon of auction blockbuster names when it sold for $110.5 million. The painting went to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who had also bought the second-most expensive Basquiat work just one year prior. Upon its sale, the painting became one of the 10 most expensive works of all time. After its sale, Maezawa toured the work to the Brooklyn Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, and it was later featured in a Basquiat survey at the Brant Foundation in 2019.

 

 

Untitled was executed by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982, which is considered his most valuable year. A majority of the highest-selling Basquiat paintings at auction date to 1982. Untitled depicts a skull, composed of black brushstrokes with red, yellow and white rivulets against a blue background. It originally sold for $4,000 in 1982. It was owned by the Annina Nosei Gallery in New York, before being sold to Phoebe Chason, who sold it to Alexander F. Milliken in 1982. It hadn’t been shown in public since it was auctioned at Christie’s in 1984 to Jerry and Emily Spiegel for $20,900.

#2.
In this Case, 1983

Christie’s New-York, 11 May 2021
USD 93,105,000

 

In this Case, 1981
Acrylic and oilstick on canvas
197.8 x 187.3 cm (77.9 x 73.7 inches)

 

In 2018, a ground breaking Basquiat retrospective opened at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris featuring a trinity of the artist’s skull paintings — together for the first time — in a small, chapel-like room. ‘Three Heads dating from 1981, 1982, and 1983 open the exhibition,’ explained Co-Curator, Olivier Michelon. ‘What situates these canvases among his most arresting is the violence they bring to their upending of the vanitas. Listed Untitled, the first two are sometimes dubbed Skull, while the third is titled In This Case; these cranial anatomies are not memento mori, but amplified memories played very, very loud. So loud that their presence is indisputable.’

At the time of the 2018 retrospective, both Untitled  paintings had already achieved international recognition. Untitled(1981) was acquired by Eli and Edythe Broad the year after it was painted — and is now housed at The Broad in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Untitled (1982) had recently realized the highest price achieved for an American artist at auction when it sold for over $110 million in 2017.

 

 

In Christie’s newly reformatted New York 20th century art evening sale in May 2021, Basquiat’s 6.5-foot-tall skull painting In This Case (1983), from the collection of Valentino cofounder Giancarlo Giammetti, was the star lot. In the event, eight bidders went for the work, which had a third-party guarantee, including one from Hong Kong. It sold for $93.1 million to a bidder on the phone with Christie’s contemporary art specialist Ana Maria Celis. The painting is from a trio of works that also includes the $110.5 million Basquiat skull painting that was bought by Japanese billionaire businessman Yusaku Maezawa at Sotheby’s in 2017. The third work in that group in the Broad museum collection. In This Case last sold at auction in 2002, but Giammetti didn’t get his hands on just then—Sotheby’s sold it below the low estimate to Gagosian for $999,500, and Giammetti later bought it from the mega-dealer in 2007. Since its last appearance at auction in 2002, the estimate had increased 50 times over, from $1 million to $50 million.

 

 

#3.
Untitled, 1982

Christie’s New-York, 10 May 2016
USD 57,285,000

 

Untitled, 1982
Acrylic on canvas
238.7 x 500.4 cm (94×197 inches)

Basquiat’s Untitled (Devil) sold at Christie’s in May 2016. Sold from the collection of Adam Lindemann, the billboard-sized image has been considered an iconic one for Basquiat collectors because it features the devil image that appears throughout much of Basquiat’s work. In 1982, as Basquiat was creating Untitled (Devil), he began spending time in Los Angeles, meeting collectors who would come to be some of the most influential players in the art industry, such as Eli and Edythe Broad. It was bought by collector Yusaku Maezawa for $57.3 million, exceeding its initial high estimate of $40 million.

Painted in 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled is an epic painting, its monumental size and visceral painterly energy marking it out as one of the artist’s most accomplished works. Measuring more than sixteen feet wide and nearly eight feet tall, it is also one of the artist’s largest canvases, yet it is the dynamism with which Basquiat constructs his painterly surface that distinguishes this work, especially considering it was painted when the artist was only 22 years old. The full force of his painterly energy can be witnessed across every inch of this vast canvas; from the lavishly fashioned demonic figure that occupies the central portion of the canvas, to his extensive repertoire of painterly drips, splashes and impulsive brushwork, the surface of Untitled acts as a totem to Basquiat’s capricious talent. Painted during his trip to Modena in Italy, Untitled belongs to a significant group of paintings that helped to forge his reputation as one of the most exciting and radical artists of his generation.

#4.
Versus Medici, 1982

Sotheby’s New-York, 12 May 2021
USD 50,820,000

 

Versus Medici, 1982
Acrylic, oilstick and paper collages on three joined canvasses
84 1/4 x 54 1/4 inches (214 x 137.8 cm)
Signed, titled and dated OCT. 1982 on the reverse
An extraordinary work executed in 1982, when the artist was just 22 years old, Versus Medici is among Basquiat’s most forceful visual challenges to the Western art establishment, in which the young artist boldly crowns himself successor to the artistic throne as established by the masters of the Italian Renaissance.
In its auction debut, Versus Medici (1982) sold during Sotheby’s marathon evening sale event in May 2021, during the same week that a Basquiat skull painting from the collection of Valentino cofounder Giancarlo Giammetti sold at Christie’s for $93 million. Versus Medici’s last recorded owner was the late Israeli Belgian collector Yaron Bruckner, the founder of Belgian retailer Eastbridge Group, who died in 2013 and acquired the work in 1990. The guaranteed work went to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s Americas chairman Lisa Dennison for a hammer price of $44 million, or $50.8 million with buyer’s fees. The buyer was later revealed to be mega collector and casino mogul Steve Wynn.
Urgent, arresting, and replete with potent symbolism, Versus Medici is a magnificent crystallization of the tremendous graphic force and intricate iconography that have come to define Jean-Michel Basquiat’s revolutionary career. Within the searing figure of the present work, the young artist boldly crowns himself as both successor to and worthy adversary of the artistic legacy of the masters of the Italian Renaissance. Having remained in the same distinguished private collection for over 30 years, Versus Medici is an exceptional and rare example of the artist’s most celebrated motif: the single, warrior-like figure. Pulsing with the energy of his unique and coveted pictorial lexicon, Versus Medici is positioned in the top tier of Basquiat’s immensely impactful cycle of grand-scale male figures from 1981 and 1982, and is undoubtedly one of the most striking and dramatic works of that period. Through a radical approach to figuration borne of his fascination with anatomy, Basquiat breaks down the dichotomy between the external and internal, revealing the cacophonous innermost aspects of psychic life with breathtaking vitality. Befitting its importance, the work has been included in several major exhibitions worldwide, including Intuition at the Palazzo Fortuny during the 2017 Venice Biennale, and most recently, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Made in Japan, the artist’s first comprehensive survey exhibition in Japan. Spectacularly forged in an array of oilstick, acrylic, and paper collage, this painting brings the haptic urgency of Basquiat’s art to life. It is challenging, dissonant, and alluring, as explosive in its execution as it is erudite in its conception.

#5.
Dustheads, 1982

Christie’s New-York, 15 May 2013
USD 48,843,752

 

Dustheads, 1982
Acrylic, oilstick, spray enamel and metallic paint on canvas
72 x 84 inches (182.8 x 213.3 cm)
Two employees Christie’s auction house put on white gloves as they get ready to pose for the media next to a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled Dustheads, 1982, during a press preview in London, Wednesday, April, 10, 2013.
Set against a backdrop of intense, inky blackness, the brightly colored figures in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Dustheads represent the ultimate tour-de-force of expressive line, color and form that has come to represent Basquiat’s iconic painterly oeuvre. An acknowledged masterpiece from a pivotal year in the artist’s career, this 1982 painting demonstrates Basquiat’s unique ability to combine raw, unabashed expressive emotion whilst displaying a draughtmanship that was unrivalled in modern painting. Housed in the same private collection for almost 20 years, Dustheads was included in the seminal exhibition of the artist’s work organized by the Fondation Beyeler, Basel in 2010 (and which later travelled to the Museé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris) and is widely referenced in monographs about the artist, including the cover of the catalogue to the 2006 Basquiat retrospective organized by the Fondazione La Triennale di Milano. This painting displays the full force of Basquiat’s emotive power as an artist and provides ample evidence of his unique painterly language–a language that came to define a generation and one that is still heard loudly today. Dustheads is a rare painting in Basquiat’s oeuvre in that it contains a pair of his totemic figures. These motifs are central to Basquiat’s art, and in many cases are regarded as self-portraits. Beginning in 1982 he began moving away from the streetscapes and cars that populated his early paintings and initiated his unique version of the human figure.

#6.
Flexible, 1984

Phillips New-York, 17 May 2018
USD 45,315,000

Flexible, 1984
Acrylic and oilstick on wood
102 x 75 in. (259.1 x 190.5 cm.)
The sale of Flexible was a major moment for boutique auction house Phillips, which had struck an arrangement with Basquiat’s estate to sell works still held by his heirs, the artist’s two sisters. In May 2018, Phillips offered Flexible with a $20 million low estimate—a seemingly conservative price point for a work by such a dominant market figure. Unlike many Basquiat works, this was not a painting done on canvas—it was done, instead, on fence slats. Measuring eight-and-a-half feet tall, it is one of the largest Basquiat paintings ever to have come up for auction. The image of a mythical king so reminiscent of the kind of mysterious central figure that appears in Basquiat’s most valuable works surely helped attract aggressive bidding, ultimately leading the house to take in a $45.3 million sum for it.
When Jean-Michel Basquiat was asked to define his art, he answered without hesitation “royalty, heroism, and the streets.” This is the vision of Flexible, 1984. In many ways, this artwork serves as a summation of these three central themes. The figure Basquiat depicts is a tribal king. His posture, with arms raised and interlocked above his head, conveys confidence and authority, attributes of his heroism. He seems to be crowning himself. The nature of the picture support, and the way in which this work came about, takes us back to the artist’s origins on the streets of Manhattan.

#7.
Warrior, 1982

Christie’s Hong-Kong, 23 March 2021
USD 41,661,840

Selling in a Christie’s single-lot sale in Hong Kong in March 2021, this work, depicting a crowned figure wielding a weapon came from the collection of German-American real estate mogul Aby Rosen. Having purchased it in 2012 at Sotheby’s for a price of $8.7 million, the new price at Christie’s saw the work appreciate in value by around 380 percent in nine years. It went to a buyer on the phone with the houses’s Hong Kong contemporary art specialist Jacky Ho, outbidding Christie’s New York chairman Alex Rotter’s client.

#8.
Untitled, 1985

Sotheby’s Hong-Kong, 18 June 2021
USD 37,269,540

 

Untitled, 1985
Acrylic and oilstick on wood, in three parts
217.2 x 275.6 x 30.5 cm (85½ x 108½ x 12 inches)
Signed and dated 85 on the reverse

 

Arresting, monumental, and tremendously emblematic, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s towering masterwork Untitled typifies the graphic ferocity, referential intricacy, and explosive painterly fervor that characterizes the artist’s truly singular oeuvre. Painted at the absolute zenith of his success and international visibility, Untitled powerfully embodies the apogee of Basquiat’s creative output. Exemplifying his ability to draw upon disparate cultural narratives within his own searing visual vernacular, Basquiat’s iconic pantheon of heroic figures are potently present within the present work, testifying to his unique positioning at the nexus of tradition and the contemporary art world. Executed in the early months of 1985, Untitled is notably and inexorably tied to Basquiat’s famous February 1985 New York Times Magazine cover, in which he sits positioned directly in front of the work. Wearing a sharp suit and wielding a paintbrush, sitting barefoot before the present work with legs akimbo, the photograph has become one of the most famous images of the young artist, and is reproduced in virtually every major monograph and exhibition catalogue to cover his work. That Basquiat chose to feature the present work in that image – which would appear on the cover of such a prominent and widely disseminated publication – underscores the poignancy and vital symbolism present in the work and positions it as an encapsulation of all Basquiat represented artistically and culturally at the peak of his practice in the 1980’s.

 

 

#9.
The Field Next To The Other Road, 1981

Christie’s New-York, 13 May 2015
USD 37,125,000

 

The Field Next to the Other Road, 1981
signed and inscribed ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat modena’ (on the reverse)
acrylic, enamel spray paint, oilstick, metallic paint and ink on canvas
87 x 158 in. (220.9 x 401.3 cm.)

 

Originally exhibited in a Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli show in 1981, The Field Next to the Other Road grew out of a period in which Basquiat began to rely heavily on skeletons, halos, and allegorical imagery. It is one of the few Basquiat paintings that depicts fully recognizable figures. In 2015, Basquiat’s former dealer, Tony Shafrazi, offered The Field Next to the Other Road at Christie’s, where it made $37.1 million with premium. Nearly a year after its sale, Christie’s filed legal claims demanding the prominent Mugrabi family pay for the painting in full. (The family had put a $5 million deposit down initially, hoping Christie’s would find a buyer in a private sale.) The legal claim revealed that the Mugrabis, who are active clients in the Basquiat market, had bought the work.

 

 

Painted in 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Field Next to the Other Road is one of the artist’s earliest monumental canvases. Measuring over 13 feet across (the largest painting the artist executed that year), it includes one of his earliest fully realized human figures—a motif which would later come to define his career. Part-mythical and part-allegorical, Basquiat’s energetic portrayal of a meeting between man and beast was painted during a trip he took to Modena, Italy, for his first solo exhibition in Europe. This marked an important moment for Basquiat, as fresh from his recent success in New York he was fueled by the excitement of travel and the optimism of his nascent career. This period resulted in the some of the most exciting and innovative paintings in Basquiat’s oeuvre as across the surface of this canvas Basquiat was channeling his artistic prowess into paintings that both spoke directly to his own personal experiences but also to a wider audience searching for a new artistic voice.

#10.
La Hara, 1981

Christie’s New-York, 17 May 2017
USD 34,967,500

 

La Hara, 1981
Acrylic and oilstick on wood panel
72 x 47 3/4 inches (182.9 x 121.3 cm)
Signed, inscribed, titled and dated ‘JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT N.Y.C. 81 “LA HARA”‘ (on the reverse)
One of the most extraordinary paintings to emerge from the legendary first year of Basquiat’s mature oeuvre, the thrilling masterpiece La Hara encapsulates the compelling blend of nimble, rapid-fire draughtsmanship and raw emotional force that propelled Basquiat to stardom in his brief but meteoric career. Painted in 1981, La Hara is a deeply personal painting imbued with cryptic references and rich symbolism. “La Hara” plays on the Puerto Rican word “jara”—slang for “cop”—and its visceral depiction of a menacing white cop drives home the complicated nature of Basquiat’s life under the “broken windows” policing of 1980s New York. Complex, masterful, and deeply personal, La Hara belongs to Basquiat’s brilliant and haunting roster of heroes and villains. It displays the spectacular sophistication of Jean-Michel’s keen mark making and the raw painterly verve that he displayed at this pivotal moment in his already burgeoning career. A profound, personal anti-hero, La Hara is the hulking embodiment of Basquiat’s deepest fears and his greatest ambitions.