On May 12, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s seminal work, Versus Medici, is headed to auction for the first time. Though it's featured in some of the most important retrospectives of his work, the painting has belonged to the same private collection for the last 30 years. The announcement follows Christie’s sale of Basquiat’s 1982 painting Warrior sold for $41.9 million on Tuesday in Hong Kong.
Painted in 1982 — the same year as Untitled (Head) which auctioned for a record $110.5 million — Versus Medici is poised to make auction history. It's expected to fetch a price of $35 million–$50 million, and even if it reaches its low estimate, it will be among the most expensive works by the artist ever sold at auction.
Part of the hype around the piece has to do with the pivotal period in which it was made. Versus Medici was produced soon after Basquiat’s transformative first trip to Italy where he gained first-hand experience of the Medici family's legendary patronage. His paintings from 1982 are the most valuable ones by him on the market. In fact, nine of his most expensive works sold at auction were made that year.
The painting in question sees the then 22-year-old artist reckoning with Renaissance ideas and playfully subverting eurocentric tropes of Western art history. The winking work centers Basquiat himself, the autodidact, and the son of Haitian and Puerto Rican immigrants, as the heir to the artworld throne.
Instead of a Western king, Basquiat portrays himself as a Pharoh. Alongside his signature three-pointed crown he scrawls the nonsensical word “AOPKEHSKS;" a reference to apotheosis, the practice of glorifying a human subject as divine. Though it could also reference the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep.
“In Versus Medici, Basquiat melds the political and art historical as he consciously stages a reckoning with the Westernized ideal of visual culture and was intent on mastering and commandeering the accepted ‘rules’ of art history in order to break them,” explains Grégoire Billault, Sotheby’s New York head of contemporary art.
Versus Medici will be on view in Taipei (3-4 April), Hong Kong (16-20 April), and Los Angeles (24-26 April. Following LA, the painting will return to New York for a pre-sale exhibition in advance of the May sale.