$110 Million Basquiat Unseats Warhol as America’s Most Expensive Artist at Sotheby’s Sale

  • Photo via Yusaku Maezawa on Twitter: “I am a lucky man.”

    Photo via Yusaku Maezawa on Twitter: “I am a lucky man.”

Seasoned art collectors know it’s usually wise to go into an auction with a set budget; otherwise one can get carried away by the adrenaline. It helps when that budget is about $100 million.

Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese e-commerce billionaire, hewed to what appears to be his annual $100 million high-profile spring auction season spend, with his purchase of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) at Thursday night’s Contemporary Art evening sale at Sotheby’s. The canvas was hammered down at $98 million after a dramatic 10-minute bidding war, coming to $110.4 million with the buyer’s premium. It marks the highest auction price ever for an American artist—unseating Andy Warhol, whose $105 million auction record was set by Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963) at Sotheby’s New York in November 2013—and the second-highest price for any contemporary work.

Maezawa purchased $98 million of art at last year’s spring auctions, in a spending binge that included a $57.3 million Basquiat, then a record for the artist.

Bidding began at $57 million, a sum that sounded a little cheeky at first, and drew murmurs from the crowd. The murmurs morphed into gasps as that figure, and with it Basquiat’s record, receded into history and the bidding soared. Sotheby’s specialist Yuki Terase, on the phone with Maezawa, used incongruously slight gestures—a delicate wiggle of a finger—to indicate she was ramping up the price by another million.

Sotheby’s had guaranteed the work for $60 million to the consignor, Lise Spiegel Wilks, and had also received an irrevocable bid on the work, meaning a buyer had placed a bid at an undisclosed amount and will share in the upside above that price. Auctioneer and chair of Sotheby’s Europe Oliver Barker called the estimate of $60 million “uncharted territory,” since it exceeded the previous record.

But Sotheby’s head of contemporary art Grégoire Billault said the team had anticipated strong demand, due to the quality of the work and the fact it had been off the market so long.

“We felt that yes, it was the price that it deserved,” said Billault.

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Almost immediately after winning the painting, Maezawa posted a photo on Instagram of himself taken with his prize during a previous trip to see it in New York. “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,” he wrote.

Thursday night’s purchase and Maezawa’s previous record-setting Basquiat purchase are both destined for public display in Japan, he has said.

Untitled, a large, intense canvas of a skull on a bright-blue background, had not been publicly exhibited in 35 years, according to Sotheby’s, and had been in the collection of Emily and Jerry Spiegel since it was purchased at Christie’s in May 1984 for $19,000. It was handed down to one of the couple’s two daughters, following Mr. Spiegel’s death in 2009.

The blockbuster sale brought the total for the evening to $319.1 million, including the buyer’s premiums. Sales had been estimated at $211 million to $277.1 million; the total without the buyer’s fees was just shy of the high estimate, at $276.9 million.

Only two out of the 51 lots failed to sell, Warhol’s Camouflage (1986) and Joan Mitchell’s No Room at the End (1977). One lot, Luciano Fabro’s l’Italia di cristallo (1968–71), was withdrawn.

The Sotheby’s sale closed out spring’s major auction week in New York, and brought the total for the four flagship evening sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s—Impressionist and Modern art on Monday and Tuesday nights, contemporary and post-war works on Wednesday and Thursday—to $1.23 billion. Earlier on Thursday night, Phillips notched a white glove sale, save its star lot, an abstract painting by Gerhard Richter, which was withdrawn previous to the auction’s start; the sale totaled $110.3 million.

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Thursday night’s total at Sotheby’s marked about a 15% rise from the house’s contemporary evening sale of $276.5 million in November.

Among other top lots, Roy Lichtenstein’s Nude Sunbathing (1995) went for $22 million, or $24 million including the buyer’s premium, at the low end of its $20 million–$30 million estimate. The large-scale painting (nearly five feet by five feet) had been acquired by its American consignor from Gagosian in 1996, and shows a red-lipped blonde leaning back to take in the sun.  

Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1991) sold for $13.5 million, or $15.4 million including the buyer’s premium, inside its $12 million–$18 million estimate.

Robert Rauschenberg’s Rigger (1961), one of the signature “Combine” paintings into which Rauschenberg incorporated found materials (in this case rope, wood, metal, and buttons, among other items), brought $10.7 million, or $12.2 million including the buyer’s premium, squarely in the range of its estimate of $8 million–$12 million. Originally sold by renowned dealer Leo Castelli, it was held in the Victor and Sally Ganz collection from 1964 until 1997, when it was purchased by the current consignor.

Warhol’s cheeky Hammer and Sickle (1976), the two emblems of Communism silk-screened onto an ember-red canvas in his signature Pop Art style, went for an underwhelming $4.7 million, or $5.5 million including the buyer’s premium, below its estimate of $6 million to $8 million.

Only three of the lots in the sale brought under $1 million after the buyer fees, and four went for $10 million or above. Most fell in the $1 million–$8 million range.

Thursday night also saw new records set for four artists appearing for the first time in a Sotheby’s New York evening sale. Jonas Wood’s Black Still Life (2012), the first lot of the sale, sold for $1.1 million, more than three times its high estimate. Wolfgang Tillmans also set a new record for his abstract photograph Freischwimmer 123 (2004), which realized $660,500, doubling its high estimate. The Brazilian artist Mira Schendel’s Untitled From the Series Droguinhas (Little Nothings) (1966) hit a record at an in-estimate $1.5 million, and Takeo Yamaguchi’s Yellow Eyes (1959) went for $948,500, more than triple its high estimate.

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Sotheby’s reported public auction art sales in 2016 of $4.1 billion, slightly below Christie’s $4.4 billion and the second consecutive fall since its record year in 2014, when it raked in $6.1 billion. Sotheby’s did about $583 million in private sales last year.

Overall sales in the global art market were estimated at slightly under $57 billion in 2016, according to The Art Market | 2017, a report published recently by Art Basel and UBS. But last year saw auction sales fall precipitously, especially in the U.S. and U.K., dropping by 26% worldwide as ultra-high end sales (works priced above $10 million) slid even more steeply.

Market observers chalked up the lack of choice consignments to political and economic turbulence, citing lack of supply, not demand, for the middling results. At least two art market reports described a shift of sales activity to the dealer sector, where the priciest works could be shopped around more discreetly.

At times this week the auctions felt closer to a series of private sales being carried out in public, as those backroom dealings can dampen bidding in the room. Many of the highlighted lots with estimates in the high single-digit millions were backed by third-party guarantees, and subsequently got hammered down after a few bids.

Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac said it was increasingly common for auction houses to map out interested buyers ahead of the sale, a practice that leaves less room for the theatrics of this bloodless trophy-hunting of the ultrarich.

“They will know a lot [of what will happen] before the auction starts,” he said, referring to the auction house specialists.

Thursday’s bidding war for the Basquiat created a jubilant mood among Sotheby’s staff, who later drank Japanese whiskey and posed in front of the painting, Barker with gavel in hand.

He said the wooden gavel, slightly chipped and bearing the patina of age, was handed down from his father. It’s a lucky one, having knocked its way through several of his most successful auctions, including two high-profile Damien Hirst sales, “Pharmacy” and “Beautiful in My Mind Forever.” Thursday night it seemed especially lucky.


—Anna Louie Sussman