Dealers and auction houses are scrambling to find top paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat to meet the surge in interest in the late artist’s work, following the record $100.5m auction of his untitled skull painting at Sotheby’s New York in May.
The sale, to the former Japanese rock star turned e-commerce entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, has “significantly increased demand for Basquiat”, says Joe Nahmad of Nahmad Contemporary, which is offering a yellow canvas with anatomical renderings and text entitled Early Moses (1983) for $8.5m at Frieze Masters. “I’m getting more requests for Basquiat than I’ve ever had before,” he adds. The interest is coming from the US and Europe, but also from collectors in Asia, South America and the Middle East. “New collectors who want to buy their first major painting are looking for Basquiat.”
The artist’s bold, brightly coloured canvases, which merge elements of street art, popular culture and disparate other sources, resonate with younger generations. Basquiat has been embraced by the most influential musicians of our time, as well as taste-makers on social media. “I’m the new Jean-Michel,” declared hip-hop mogul Jay-Z in his single Picasso Baby, while Maezawa announced his $100.5m purchase on Instagram.
A strong part of the appeal is the myth of the destitute, self-made street artist who found fame through sheer talent and force of will. This version of Basquiat’s life overlooks the fact that he came from a well-off family: his father was an accountant, born in Haiti, and his mother was of Puerto Rican descent. The artist had an expensive private education and was trilingual in English, Spanish and French from the age of four.
Works from 1981 and 1982 are particularly prized by the market: the top ten auction prices for the artist are for paintings from those two years. It was in the early 1980s that Basquiat transitioned from being a graffiti artist to a studio-based one.
“He was given space by the gallerist Annina Nosei and was able to create fully realised canvases with the same intensity and vitality as his street art,” says Katharine Arnold, the director and senior specialist in charge of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, which is offering the artist’s Red Skull (1982) in its evening sale this Friday 6 October. The work has a low estimate “in the region of £12m”, according to the auction house. (Proceeds from the sale will go to KIPP schools in New Jersey, a network of free, public charter schools with no entrance requirements and a record of high performance). Read more