BlackBook Interview: The Basquiat $110 Million+ Sale – Sotheby’s Expert David Galperin Explains




Upon leaving the Brooklyn Museum’s landmark exhibition Basquiat in 2005, there was a keen sense of the late namesake painter being his generation’s Picasso. Surely their artistic lives started similarly (Pablo, a skint Spanish artist kicking around Paris’ Montmartre at the turn of the century; and Jean-Michel, a skint, Brooklyn-born Haitian – Puerto Rican kid trolling the downtown NYC art scene in the 80s), but ended up very differently. Indeed, Picasso achieved staggering success in his lifetime and lived to 92; Basquiat had famous friends (Madonna, Warhol), sold a lot of paintings, but died of a heroin overdose at just 27 – and very much a lost soul.

But in so many of those ephemeral ways that are difficult to explain without actually looking at the art, Jean-Michel’s work similarly managed to be both exceedingly personal, and yet somehow monumental and zeitgeist defining. Correspondingly, in the decades after his death in 1988, the value of his work rose to match the mythos. Yet few would have predicted what happened on May 18, as Sotheby’s in New York took bids on his 1982 masterpiece Untitled.

Indeed, its pre-auction estimate was $60 million (still a hefty sum) – and yet it sold to Japanese collector and e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for $110.5 million.

Thinking that this might be a genuinely defining moment for Basquiat’s legacy, we asked Sotheby’s Vice President of Contemporary Art David Galperin to elaborate on what it meant.


Image: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child 


The Basquiat Untitled painting sold for nearly double its pre-sale estimate. Were you particularly surprised by this?

By the time of the auction we had witnessed the phenomenal response to the painting, so certainly had an idea that there would be intense competition. The market hadn’t seen a Basquiat of this quality since this painting was last sold in 1984, so we all knew it would achieve something very special. But with a work of such rarity and singularity, it was hard to put a finger on just how high the bidding would go. At this level, in a sense, the sky was the limit.

Could you elaborate on the significance of this particular painting both on its own and within the larger context of Basquiat’s oeuvre?

I am lucky in my position to every so often encounter works of art that up your heart rate. The first time I saw this painting in the flesh it had an almost physical effect on me — the intensity of its image and complexity of its execution is practically unrivaled. I had only known it from a thumbnail reproduction in a book, and we always considered it even from that small image to be among the very best Basquiat works ever. It was painted in January 1982 – a critical moment for him, right before he exploded onto the scene with his first Annina Nosei solo show in March of that year. And it has an energy and immediacy that shows Basquiat at the height of his powers as a draftsman and colorist. He was only 21 when he painted this, and I think a major part of the magic in the work is this combination of youthful experimentation and raw energy with Basquiat’s incredible clarity, technical mastery and sophistication at such a young age.



With nearly three decades since his passing, how would you state the importance of Basquiat as an artist, apart from the market value of his work? Do you find it more defining of a cultural moment or genuinely timeless?

Basquiat’s genius was that his work was at once both timeless and also profoundly rooted in his own era. He was an artist who was as much looking to the greats of art history for inspiration as he was looking to the streets of downtown New York in the 1980s. He had an insatiable appetite. In Untitled you can see Basquiat sampling from abstract expressionists like Kline, de Kooning, and Twombly, modern masters like Picasso and Bacon, while also looking to more ancient forms of expression and primitive modes of communication. I think Basquiat’s work defines this spirit of creative revolution that made New York the center of the most important advancements in art in the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Is Basquiat becoming, in a sense, the Picasso of his generation? In the hierarchy of 20th Century art?

Both Picasso and Basquiat were supernovas – they were radicals who changed the course of art history by circumventing the norms. But whereas Picasso worked prolifically for decades, Basquiat died tragically young at 27, after just seven years of painting. Picasso’s place in the art historical canon was solidified in his lifetime, while history is only now beginning to unravel the profound significance of Basquiat’s work. The record we set only reinforces to the world what many of us already knew, and what the group of extraordinary collectors dedicated to Basquiat since the 1980s have long understood. Now joining the small group of artists who have sold above the $100 million mark, alongside Picasso, Bacon, Giacometti and Warhol, Basquiat can finally hold the rightful place in art history that I think he always knew he would one day command.

Are there any other artists of Basquiat’s generation whose status you feel might be ready to be elevated in the eyes of collectors? Who might be the next surprising sale?

Basquiat was always recognized by collectors – after Annina Nosei showed him in March of 1982, the paintings were flying out of his studio so fast that they hardly had time to dry. In fact the work we sold this month was included in a Contemporary Art Evening Sale in May 1984, just two years after it was painted – a significant deal for the then-24 year old artist. So, like Basquiat in his lifetime, there are a number of artists who were in fact already celebrated and widely collected, but for whom I think we will only see increased demand for in the coming years. What’s particularly exciting for me right now is watching an overall re-evaluation of other artists who rose to prominence in the 1980s: in the same sale as the Basquiat, we also set a new world-record price for his contemporary, Keith Haring. I think we’ll see the broader market looking more closely at other important artists from this critical generation, well-known figures like David Salle, Eric Fischl, Peter Halley, Ashley Bickerton. I’m not suggesting we’ll see $100 million prices for these artists, but I do expect an exciting and long overdue commercial rediscovery.

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