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One obvious outcome of the May sales in New York will be enlarged expectations for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s market. The painter who died in the 1980s has moved up the value ladder in progressive stages over the last decade.
With the shock and awe of the record $110m sale at Sotheby’s, there will be more activity that follows. We’ve looked at the sales history of Basquiat’s work and it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the two record prices paid in the last year will continue.
The pressing issue is whether there is a broader Basquiat market at this new level beyond Yasuku Maezawa who paid $167m for two paintings in the last year. There are indications that others are willing to pay higher prices for Basquiat’s work demonstrated the night before the record sale when the painter’s work Untitled (La Hara,) above, was bought for $35m.
If we look at the overall sales for 2017, we can see that the average price for a Basquiat work rose sharply due to the $110m sale. But without that one work, the average price for the 24 works sold so far in 2017 drops back down to $3.4m or slightly lower than the previous year as you can see in the chart below.
As you can see from this graph where the bars represent the overall dollar volume at auction (scale at left) and the average price represented by the blue line (scale at right,) even with that huge sale in New York, 2017 is not yet a record year for the artist. Though we can expect there to be more Basquiat sales during the remainder of the year, the recent pace added to the $200m already spent this year may leave 2017 around the same level as the record year of 2013.
So what needs to happen for the rest of the Basquiat market rise to the level implied by Maezawa’s purchases? Let’s look at the three periods where Basquiat’s market rose dramatically. Here is a chart of the last decade’s worth of Basquiat auction sales. You can see the rise in 2006-08, the boost to the next level in the 2012-15 period, and finally the last year’s extraordinary sales.
Focusing on each of these periods, we can see some price patterns emerging. In the 2006-08 period, a new level in the low-teens was established in 2007. Subsequent sales were arrayed between that new high and previous levels until the new price level was confirmed and re-confirmed with subsequent sales into 2008 with the final price coming after the beginnings of the financial crisis.
Perhaps the most important pricing signal that one can see in these charts are the 9 or 10 prices below the two top prices that exceed the $3.5m level. The sheer number of public sales at that level gives the strong impression of market depth.
As the art market recovered from the financial crisis, the initial rise in asset values focused on long-established artists. And though Basquiat has had a significant market for nearly 40 years, the market for his work seemed to lag until 2012. From there, it didn’t take long to heat up. The early run-up in prices culminated with the $48.8m sale of Dustheads which was a record few could have imagined for the artist.
At the time, it was not know that the buyer was an Indonesian, Jho Low, who would later be caught up in a scandal involving the country’s Prime Minister and the accusation of diverted funds from a development bank. All the market knew was that there was a buyer near $50m.
The market’s response was to establish an array of prices between the old highs in the low teens and the new high water mark of $48.8m. Six sales followed at the new levels above $20m to almost $40m. Again, it came out later that at least one of the sales was an internal auction house deal that the firm had trouble getting payment upon.
Jho Low’s strong price failed to find confirmation and the sales seeking to establish a new price level between the high and the previous highs soon petered out. By 2015, the Basquiat market seemed to have entered another dormant phase even as the overall art market continued to show great strength.
Finally, Adam Lindemann’s guaranteed sale of one of the largest works by the artist at a new high of $57m actually failed to revive the market. You can see from the prices arrayed below that there were a few sales in the high teens and slightly above between May 0f 2016 and last month. None would have suggested the strength shown by the Wilks head or La Hara.
Taking Maezawa out of the market, the price for La Hara seems more indicative of where we will see Basquiats sell next. If the auction houses can source strong works that establish a convincing number of prices above the $40m level, we’ll know that the Basquiat market has entered a new phase. Rumors of a $70m sale on the private market will also have to be confirmed and re-confirmed on the private market to establish those new levels.