The Most Expensive Artworks Sold at Auction
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.
Sotheby’s New-York, 18 May 2017
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.
In this Case, 1983
Christie’s New-York, 11 May 2021
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.
Christie’s New-York, 10 May 2016
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.
Versus Medici, 1982
Sotheby’s New-York, 12 May 2021
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
Christie’s New-York, 15 May 2013
72 x 84 inches (182.8 x 213.3 cm)
Dustheads will forever have an asterisk next to its sale price. In 2013, Basquiat’s prices started to surge. In May of that year, Dustheads sold at Christie’s New York, making $20 million more than another of the artist’s work sold earlier that year in November. Reportedly, the seller was London collector Tiqui Atencio, who had purchased the work from Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1996. In a 1996 review published in ARTnews of Shafrazi’s show, critic Elizabeth Hayt saw the painting as “an emblem of rage and terror.” Two years after the Christie’s sale, a New York Times investigation into the use of Manhattan luxury real estate by foreign buyers revealed as an aside that Malaysian financier Jho Low had been the buyer. In subsequent years, Low would be accused of misappropriating funds, to pay for a lifestyle that allowed for a number of high-value art purchases. Dustheads would eventually be used by Low as collateral for a loan from Sotheby’s financial services arm, and the proceeds of the loan were used to build a large yacht. Low defaulted on the loan, which gave Sotheby’s title to the work. A private sale to of D1 Capital hedge-fund manager Daniel Sundheim reset the price at just $35 million.
Phillips New-York, 17 May 2018
Acrylic and oilstick on wood
102 x 75 in. (259.1 x 190.5 cm.)
Christie’s Hong-Kong, 23 March 2021
Sotheby’s Hong-Kong, 18 June 2021
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.
The Field Next To The Other Road, 1981
Christie’s New-York, 13 May 2015
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.
La Hara, 1981
Christie’s New-York, 17 May 2017
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)