Basquiat Painting Is Sold for $110.5 Million at Auction  5/19/2017 1:14:50 AM  2  Robin Pogrebin and Scott Reyburn
“Untitled,” a Basquiat painting from 1982, sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction on Thursday night. 2017 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, via Sotheby's

Joining the rarefied $100 million-plus club in a sales room punctuated by periodic gasps from the crowd, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s powerful 1982 painting of a skull brought $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, to become the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction. Only 10 other works have broken the $100 million mark.

“Untitled,” a Basquiat painting from 1982, was expected to sell for $60 million at Sotheby’s auction on Thursday night. 2017 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris, via ARS, New York, via Sotheby’s

“He’s now in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso,” said the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, an expert on Basquiat.

The sale made for a thrilling moment at Sotheby’s postwar and contemporary auction as at least four bidders on the phones and in the room sailed past the $60 million level at which the work had been guaranteed to sell by a third party.

The buyer was Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire. The winning bid was taken on the phone by Yuki Terase, who oversees Japanese business development for Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, against the dealer Nicholas Maclean, who was hunched over in the room on the phone with a buyer.

Yusaku Maezawa via Sotherby's

It was Mr. Maezawa, the 41-year-old founder of Contemporary Art Foundation, who last year set the previous auction high for Basquiat, paying $57.3 million for the artist’s large 1982 painting of a horned devil. Mr. Maezawa revealed himself to be the buyer through a post on his Instagram account. He acquired the painting for a planned museum in Chiba, Japan.

Whether one active collector makes a market remains to be seen. It will take another major Basquiat to test the sustainability of this $100 million level.

In the meantime, however, Basquiat’s vibrant painting of a face in the shape of a skull set several records Thursday night: for a work by any American artist, for a work by a black artist and as the first work created since 1980 to make over $100 million.

“It’s a really historical moment,” said Larry Warsh, a longtime Basquiat collector. “It does cement this artist once again.”

The Brooklyn-born Basquiat went from graffiti artist to an art collector darling in the span of a mere seven years. He died at 27 of a drug overdose in 1988. Last year, Basquiat became the highest-grossing American artist at auction, generating $171.5 million from 80 works, according to Artprice, and his auction high has increased at least tenfold in the last 15 years.

Perhaps poignantly, the price exceeded the auction high of Basquiat’s friend and mentor, Andy Warhol, whose “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (in 2 Parts)” sold for an artist high of $105.4 million in 2013.

The Sotheby’s sale, which brought a total of $319 million on a low estimate of $211 million with 96 percent of the 50 lots sold, was a marked contrast to Tuesday night’s lower-energy sale at Christie’s. Eighteen of the lots were guaranteed to sell.

“There was more depth of bidding than last night,” said Morgan Long, a senior director at the Fine Art Group, an advisory company based in London. “Sotheby’s had a lot more works in the middle range round $5 million to $10 million that appealed to the market.”

Earlier in the evening, Phillips held its latest auction in newer format of 20th century and contemporary art. At that sale over half the 37 lots carried guaranteed minimum prices, emphasizing sellers’ reluctance to consign to auction without a definite sale.

Peter Doig, via Phillips

Peter Doig’s 1991 canvas, “Rosedale,” of a Toronto snowfall, which was guaranteed for $25 million, sold for $28.8 million to a telephone bidder, an auction high for the artist. As Phillips pointed out before the auction, the Scottish-born Doig, whose grand, painterly landscapes are prized by collectors, is one of just six living artists who have sold for more than $25 million at auction.

What was left unanswered at the end of the night was why Mr. Maezawa is so enamored of Basquiat.

“The acquisition of a trophy, that’s what drove this moment tonight,” Mr. Warsh said. “This is really out of the boundaries.”

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