Another Basquiat auction, another multi-million dollar price tag. This week alone, a painting by the Brooklyn artist fetched $93.1 million at a Christie's auction; another artwork, Versus Medici, just sold for $50.8 million at Sotheby's, a far cry from its $1 million price tag in 2002. So, why the exponential increase in value?
Jean-Michel Basquiat was just 22 when he painted Versus Medici. The painting in question sees the young artist, freshly returned from a trip to Italy, reckoning with the legacy of Renaissance greats such as Leonardo Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli. In the visually-charged self-portrait, Basquiat subverts the notions of Western art “and crowns himself, the son of immigrants from Haiti and Puerto Rico," Sotheby's explains.
For any other artist, it would be a stunning feat to snap up $50.8 million at such a young age. However, Versus Medici only sold a tad above its high pre-sale estimate of $50 million. Let me translate: for a Basquiat, this is quite cheap.
Earlier this week, In This Case, a skull painting by the Haitian-American artist, almost doubled its $50 million estimate — when does that ever happen in this art market? — selling for $93.1 million, becoming the second most expensive Basquiat sale.
The most expensive, an untitled painting, sold in 2017 to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for over $110 million. Untitled, created when Basquiat was just 21, became the sixth most expensive work sold at auction, and the most expensive from an American and an African-American artist.
The appeal of Basquiat's work has always been “a combination of raw talent, compelling biography, and limited supply" (New York Times). Perhaps this is the formula that has attracted the checkbooks of the billionaire art-collecting class.
As Bloomberg writes: “Despite decades of market success, prices for Basquiat’s work have only truly taken off in recent years, driven by demand from a small group of billionaires.”
“You’re talking about a handful of masterpieces, which are distributed among a few collectors who are not sellers,” art dealer Brett Gorvy told the New York Times. “You’re going to have to wait a long time if you are a major collector to see another extraordinary painting like this.”
With so few Basquiats moving from one private collection to another and sales continuing to make headlines, this might be the ultimate reckoning with the artist's market value. Will we see another record-breaking auction? It's only a matter of time.