Japanese billionaire pays US$110m for Basquiat painting, a record for a US artist

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 9:03pm

A Japanese billionaire has paid US$110.5 million for a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, setting an auction record for a US artist, and any artwork created since 1980.

The 1982 Untitled, depicting a skull-like head in oil-stick, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, was the star lot of the New York auction season this May, which wraps Friday with more than US$1 billion in sales.

Sotheby’s said it was bought by 41-year-old online clothing magnate Yusaku Maezawa, who set the previous Basquiat auction record last year when he spent US$57.3 million on a self-portrait.

“I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece,” Maezawa wrote on Instagram with a photo of himself with the picture.

“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.”

Cheers and applause greeted the sale. During bidding, the auctioneer offered occasional moments of levity and encouragement.

“It’s a great masterpiece at US$98 million,” he said to laughter in the room. The eventual US$110.5 million price tag includes the buyer’s premium.

Basquiat, born in Brooklyn to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, died in 1988 from a drug overdose at the age of 27 after a fleeting eight-year career.

Untitled provoked a tense 10-minute bidding war before ­ultimately going to Maezawa, who was phoning in bids.

The canvas had been virtually unseen in public since being bought in 1984 for US$19,000. It was valued before the sale at more than US$60 million.

Sotheby’s announced that the painting would be housed eventually in a museum based in Maezawa’s hometown of Chiba, Japan.

The house parted with a total of US$319 million worth of post-war and contemporary art at Thursday’s auction, one day after rival Christie’s sold US$448 million worth of art.

The subject of much of Basquiat’s work - the ordeals endured by blacks in America - is finding renewed resonance in the wake of nationwide US protests since 2014 about the shootings of unarmed black men by police.

Christie’s sold Basquiat’s La Hara - an acrylic and oil-stick depiction of an angry-looking New York police officer - for US$35 million on Wednesday.

“Breaking US$100 million for a work which is that recent is definitely extraordinary. I think it just speaks about the talent of this guy,” said Gregoire Billault, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art.

“I’ve never seen so much emotions in such a painting,” he said. “He’s bringing something never seen before.”

“Now he goes into the pantheon of great, great artists,” said Oliver Barker, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe. “It’s as simple as that.”

Christie’s announced Thursday that its impressionist, modern, post-war and contemporary sales this week totaled US$842.5 million, which it said was up US$220 million over its sales last season in November.

Pablo Picasso holds the world record for the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction. The Women of Algiers (Version 0) fetched US$179.4 million at Christie’s in New York in 2015.