Though his career spanned barely 10 years, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork continues to realise record prices even today. Basquiat's prints and graffiti-style paintings, often monumental in scale and striking in their use of allegory, can fetch up to nine-figure sums under the hammer.
On 8 May 1984, New York collectors Jerry and Emily Spiegel bought Basquiat’s Untitled from Christie’s for US$19,000. Fast forward to 18 May 2017, the painting was once again at auction – almost 33 years to the day of the previous sale – this time at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction.
Bidding started at US$57 million and, after more than 10 minutes of intense back-and-forth over the telephones, Untitled sold for US$110.5 million – setting a new record price for Basquiat and for American artists. The buyer was billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who also snapped up another masterpiece by Basquiat at Christie’s a year earlier. “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,” the Japanese collector wrote on Instagram after the sale.
Only 10 other works had broken the US$100 million mark at the time. Untitled remains the most expensive artwork by Basquiat sold at auction.
Curator Fred Hoffman wrote that what drew Basquiat to depicting the human form was ‘his fascination with the face as a passageway from exterior physical presence into the hidden realities of man’s psychological and mental realms.” The artist's monumental work In This Case is a testament to this.
Painted when Basquiat was just 22, there is a sense of immediacy and urgency here, amplified by the deep palette, jagged linework and overlapping sketches that have become so associated with the artist's style. In this Case recently sold for £65.7million at Christie’s New York on May 11th 2021.
“Where should we open this? 32 million dollars!” announced the auctioneer to a packed Christie’s saleroom in New York on 10 May 2016.
A bidding battle for Basquiat’s Untitled quickly commenced. The huge landscape painting – created when the artist was only 22 years old – eventually sold for US$57.3 million with fees, a new auction record for Basquiat at the time. The buyer was later revealed as Japanese billionaire and collector Yusaku Maezawa who, a year later, would go on to set another Basquiat auction record with a purchase at Sotheby’s in May 2017.
Another poignant work created when Basquiat was just 22 years old, Versus Medici is a testament to the artist’s tenacity and confidence in rejecting established Western art historical tradition.
Here, we see Basquiat uprooting any notion of an 'old masters' hierarchy by crowning himself successor to the artworld’s throne, one currently held by the artists of the Italian renaissance. One of the stars of Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening Auction on May 12th 2021, Versus Medici sold for £36.1 million. Though this is an earlier piece, we see Basquiat’s signature style and visual language being used here to striking and dramatic effect.
Flexible, which Basquiat painted on a picket fence found outside his New York studio, was expected to sell for US$20-30 million at Phillips in New York on 17 May 2018. It achieved US$45.3 million, becoming the star lot of the night and contributing 34% of the auction’s total. Proceeds from its sale will be used by Basquiat’s estate to foster his artistic and cultural legacy.
Estimated between US$25-35 million, Dustheads soared past expectations to achieve US$48.8 million at Christie’s in New York on 15 May 2013, setting a new record price for Basquiat at the time.
The previous record for a Basquiat painting was US$26.4 million, set at Christie’s in New York in November 2012. Dustheads was the third most expensive lot of the Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale, which totalled a staggering US$495 million, then the highest sales total in art auction history. “We are in a new era of the art market,” remarked Jussi Pylkkanen, the evening’s auctioneer.
Basquiat himself declared that 1982 was the year in which he ‘made the best paintings ever,’ and with his work Warrior setting the record in 2021 for the most expensive Western artwork sold in Asia, perhaps he was on to something.
Sold for £30.3 million in a live streamed auction from Christie’s Hong Kong on March 23rd, Warrior depicts a male figure wielding a sword - the eponymous ‘warrior’ often interpreted as being the artist himself. Outspoken in his beliefs about racial division and the constraints placed upon him by traditional western art history, the raw energy and symbolic character of the ‘warrior’ here does indeed draw parallels with Basquiat himself.
Like many of Basquiat’s paintings, The Guilt of Gold Teeth combines a visual amalgamation of symbols, words and mystic figures to a unique effect that has become synonymous with the artist’s work. Considered to be a portrayal of the contrast between the experiences of being rich and poor, it is unsurprising that the dollar sign motif recurs across this work. The figure in the work is clad in black with a mouth full of gold teeth - both sinister and intriguing.
Sold for £29.5 million at Christie’s New York on 9th November 2021, this painting epitomises Basquiat’s Neo-Expressionist style, which came to the fore as a movement during this period.
Sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong as part of the Contemporary Curated: Asia (18th June 2021) series for £27 million, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled is one of his monumental, explosive works.
Many see this as the culmination of Basquiat’s hugely successful artistic output so far, particularly considering that the artist posed in front of this work for his famous 1985 New York Times Magazine cover feature. Three wooden panels provide the base for Basquiat’s signature use of bold colour and semi-abstraction, which combine to form a vibrant exploration of cultural identity and the conflict between African heritage and traditionally white Art History in the artist’s signature painterly style.
Painted in 1981, La Hara – derived from “jara”, the Puerto Rican slang for “cop” – expressed Basquiat’s loathing of the New York police. For African American graffiti artists like Basquiat, police brutality was a constant threat. In 1983, he painted The Death Of Michael Stewart in remembrance of street artist Stewart, who died at the hands of the police earlier that year. “It could have been me,” Basquiat said to his friends.
La Hara soared past its US$22-28 million estimate to realise almost US$35 million at Christie’s in New York on 17 May 2017.
The Field Next To The Other Road, painted in 1981 when Basquiat was only 20 years old, is one of his earliest monumental canvases and features many of the motifs that would inspire his best works, including human figures, anatomy and allegory. Over the past year, Basquiat had put his days as SAMO the graffiti artist behind him and enjoyed his breakout exhibition. 1982 would see the launch of his art career as well as his meeting with Andy Warhol, who would become a close friend and collaborator.
The Field Next To The Other Road was offered at Christie’s in New York on 13 May 2015, where it sold for US$37.1 million against an estimate of US$25-35 million.
Considered an altarpiece for the modern age, Basquiat’s Flesh And Spirit drew inspiration from the Ghent Altarpiece, Auguste Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, the Kongo cosmogram and Yoruba mythology. The title references Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Philosophy, an investigation into African religious traditions.
Basquiat, who had Puerto Rican and Haitian ancestry, incorporated African cultural motifs into his art throughout his career. Flesh And Spirit was purchased by a private collector in the year it was created, 1983, and did not come to auction until 35 years, where it sold for almost US$31 million at Sotheby’s in New York on 16 May 2018.
When New York gallerist Annina Nosei first saw Basquiat’s artwork in 1981, she immediately recognised his potential. She offered to buy him art supplies and use the basement of her gallery as a studio. “It was the first time I had a place to work,” Basquiat recalled. “It was right in the gallery, you know. She used to bring collectors down there, so it wasn’t very private. I didn’t mind. I was young. It was a place to work, which I never had before.”
After Basquiat completed Untitled in Nosei’s gallery basement, it was quickly snapped up by a private collector who kept it for nearly three decades. The fresh-to-auction painting sold for US$34.9 million at Christie’s in New York on 13 May 2014.
The only top-ten result by Basquiat achieved at a London auction, Untitled was the star lot of Christie’s Post War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 25 June 2013. The owner had bought the painting for US$1.6 million at a Phillips auction in New York in 2002. Over a decade later, its value in dollars was close to US$29 million.
Untitled was created in 1982, the year where Basquiat’s career took off. The artist moved out of his dealer Annina Nosei’s gallery basement and into his own studio, and he could earn a living from his art. Looking back at that time, Basquiat recalled, “I had some money: I made the best paintings ever.”
The three-point crown was one of Basquiat’s favourite motifs. Traditionally a symbol of European royalty, Basquiat put crowns on his paintings of Black athletes, musicians and writers in reverence and to put his own spin on Western history. He was also known to put a crown on his own self-portraits, measuring his skills against his heroes’.
Untitled depicts a boxer wearing bright red Everlast shorts and a large golden crown – Basquiat’s sporting heroes included Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson. The painting sold for US$29.3 million at Christie’s in New York on 12 November 2013.