Basquiat Painting Becomes Most Expensive American Work Ever Sold

A Japanese billionaire bought the piece for $110.5 million

Sipa via AP Images

The art world was set aflutter last week after a dramatic painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat became the most expensive American work ever sold at auction. As Nate Freeman reports for Art News, the untitled 1982 painting fetched a staggering $110.5 million after an intense bidding war that left the crowd at Sotheby’s in New York audibly gasping with shock.

Untitled depicts a grimacing skull rendered with frenetic swathes of red, blue, and black. It is emblematic of Basquiat’s oeuvre: gritty, energetic pieces that are carefully layered with iconography and symbolism. Untitled signaled Basquiat’s entry into the rarefied art world. In 1982, when he created the painting, he was an unknown graffiti artist living in New York. But Basquiat was about to become perhaps “the only artist of color involved in any part of the art world at that time,” as art critic Jerry Saltz put it to NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

The artist’s career was dazzling and short. Basquiat died of a drug overdose in 1988, at the age of 27.

Though Sotheby’s calls Untitled “a virtually incomparable masterwork,” the piece was expected to sell for about $60 million, a little more than half of its eventual selling price. According to Freeman, two bidders faced off for the work. After 10 minutes of competition, the painting was sold to Yusaku Maezawa​, a 41-year-old Japanese billionaire.

Minutes after the bidding war concluded, Maezawa posted an Instagram photo of himself standing next to the work. “I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece,” he wrote. “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.”

The sale broke a flurry of records, as Robin Pogrebin and Scott Reyburn report for the New York Times. Untitled is the most expensive work by an American artist ever sold at auction, and the most valuable work by any African-American artist. It is also the first piece created since 1980 to crack the $100 million mark.

The recent auction also trounced the previous record for a Basquiat painting, which was also purchased by Maezawa. Last year, the billionaire made headlines when he scooped up yet another untitled 1982 Basquiat for $57.3 million—a veritable bargain, it seems.

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