Over the following three decades, their work has reached astronomical highs at auction. In 2017, Basquiat’s skull painting Untitled
(1982) sold for $110.4 million at Sotheby’s, making him the most expensive American artist at auction
. In the same year, the auction house sold Haring’s Untitled
(1982), a painting on a vinyl tarp, for $6.5 million, which remains the artist’s auction record.
Despite Basquiat’s early fame, during his lifetime his auction estimates could still be low. Six months before his death in 1988, Sotheby’s sold Texas (1983) for $7,150 (above its high estimate of $6,000), although another oil painting at the same sale went for substantially more, at $23,100 (within its estimate of $20,000 to $25,000). Six months before Haring’s death, his work was selling for considerably higher prices already on the secondary market, and occasionally soaring above auction estimates: For instance, Untitled (1984) sold for $126,500 over a high estimate of $30,000 at a Sotheby’s sale in October 1989.
There is little resemblance between Basquiat’s and Haring’s auction trajectories before their deaths. However, both artists’ sales rise above estimates shortly after their deaths, dip, and then gradually grow again before slamming into a brick wall between 1990 and 1991, when many of their works failed to sell at auction, fell short of their estimates, or were withdrawn. Multiple factors might have led to this dropoff, including the global recession of the early 1990s (when, in 1991, the U.S. economy’s GDP shrank by 0.1% and unemployment reached 6.9%), changes in cultural taste, and tactically reduced demand from speculators anticipating the death effect.
“[An] issue to consider is that because the ‘death effect’ is so well known within the art market, it paradoxically does not always materialize,” said Olav Velthuis, author of Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (2005). “Many collectors may decide to sell work by the artist after she dies, they expect prices to rise, the market gets flooded, and paradoxically prices are depressed rather than inflated.”