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.
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.