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1981 to 1984 was a brief period of intense artistic output that established Jean-Michel Basquiat, despite his short career, in the canon of 20th Century art history. 1981 was the year that put the mysterious SAMO artist, friend of Keith Haring and Patti Astor, on the map among the social circle around the Mudd Club, the night club-gallery-hybrid that defined downtown that decade. Basquiat quickly became a major player within New York’s East Village counterculture scene. That same year, the Mudd’s co-founder, Diego Cortez, put the 21-year-old Basquiat in a major group show New York/New Wave. By 1983, Basquiat had found his way into the posse of the Met’s former curator, Henry Geldzahler. Geldzahler had published a piece in Interview magazine that limned the now-famous key elements of Basquiat’s work: royalty, heroism, and the streets. Despite his youth, the artist’s creative agility and political acumen allowed him to emerge as major force unifying street art with high art. His death at 27 years old perpetuated the image of Basquiat as a wild mystery, an image ironically fueled by the elitism Basquiat so relentlessly critiqued. Over the subsequent decades, Basquiat’s stature as an artist would be reevaluated by the very institutions in which he remains under-represented. Now, among the most-valued artists in the market, Basquiat’s legacy is archived throughout a host of milestone record-breaking works.
Untitled (1982): $110.5 M.
The most expensive work by Basquiat to ever sell at auction came to Sotheby’s New York contemporary art evening auction in May 2017, far surpassing its pre-sale high estimate of $60 million. 1982 was a seminal year for the 22-year-old artist, who was then known as his elusive street-tagging alter-ego, SAMO. He began rising in prominence within the art industry following the New York/New Wave show and his first solo exhibition in Modena, Italy. It was around this time critical leaders like Metropolitan curator, Henry Geldzahler and Jeffery Deitch, who reviewed the 1980 Times Square show in which Basquiat was featured —were beginning to pay him real attention. And it was the first time he started seeing a profit for his works. The landmark sale established the renegade artist among the top echelon of auction blockbuster names. The work, featuring Basquiat’s signature graffiti style and at center a black painted skull-like face, went to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who was also the buyer of the second highest selling work by Basquiat just one year prior.
Untitled (1982): $57.3 M.
Basquiat’s Untitled (Devil), also made in 1982, sold at Christie’s in May 2016, exceeding its initial high estimate of $40 million. Sold from the collection of Adam Lindemann, the billboard-sized image appeared on the book of artist’s work many consider the closest thing to a catalogue raisonné for Basquiat. In the image (above, at top of this post) taken by photographer and friend, Maripol, in her loft in 1982, Basquiat’s blurred image stands against a menacing devil motif he painted on the wall. Many versions of this devil image appear throughout his work. 1982 was also the year he started to spend time in Los Angeles, meeting collectors who would come to be some of the most influential players in the art industry, such as Eli and Edythe Broad. Lindemann’s sale of Untitled (Basquiat) was a canny choice by the collector. In the Spring of 2016, the Basquiat market had seen a serious pull-back. Many collectors would have considered that a bad time to offer one of the most famous Basquiat images at auction. Undoubtedly helped by a guarantee proffered by Christie’s, Lindemann rightly surmised that relative quiet of the Spring 2016 auctions would focus attention on his lot. He was proved right.
Dustheads (1982): $48.8 M.
Dustheads will forever have an asterisk next to its sale price. In 2013, Basquiat’s prices started to surge. In May of that year, Dustheads sold at Christie’s New York, making $20 million more than another of the artist’s work sold earlier that year in November. Reportedly, the seller was London collector Tiqui Atencio who purchased the work originally from Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1996. In a 1996 review published in ARTnews of Shafrazi’s show, critic Elizabeth Hayt saw the painting as “an emblem of rage and terror.” Two years after the sale, a New York Times investigation into the suspicious use of Manhattan luxury real estate by foreign buyers revealed as an aside that Malaysian financier Jho Low had been the buyer, setting the record price. In subsequent years, Low would be implicated in Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal as having mis-appropriated funds from 1MDB to pay for a profligate lifestyle including a number of high-value art purchases. Dustheads would eventually be used by Low as collateral for a loan from Sotheby’s Financial Services. The proceeds of the loan were used to build a large yacht. Low defaulted on the loan which gave Sotheby’s title to the work. A private sale to of D1 Capital hedge-fund manager Daniel Sundheim reset the price at just $35 million.
Flexible (1984): $45.3 M.
The sale of Flexible was a major moment for boutique auction house, Phillips which had struck an arrangement with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s estate to sell works still held by his heirs, the artist’s two sisters. In May 2018, Phillips offered Flexible with a $20m low estimate because the estate was able to take the risk of an attractive estimate. The seemingly low number also reflected the market for the work’s palette-like armature because few works in this format had previously been offered at auction or even privately. The work is notably different from the other record breakers as its completed on a surface of painted fence slats and measuring at eight-and-a-half feet tall, it is one of the largest paintings to come up at auction. The image of a mythical king so reminiscent of the kind of mysterious central figure that appears in Basquiat’s most valuable works surely helped attract aggressive bidding.
The Field Next to the Other Road (1981): $37.1 M.
Originally exhibited in the Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli SAMO show in 1981, The Field Next to the Other Road marks the period in which the artist’s repertoire of allegorical images—the skeleton, the halo—began to dominate his canvas painting. It is one of the few paintings that depicts fully recognizable figures. In 2015, Basquiat’s former dealer, Tony Shafrazi, offered The Field Next to the Other Road at Christie’s where it made a price that worked out to be $37.1m with premium. Nearly a year later, Christie’s filed legal claims demanding the prominent Mugrabi family pay for the painting in full (they had put a $5m deposit down initially, hoping Christie’s would find a buyer in a private sale). The incident revealed the Mugrabis, who are active clients in the Basquiat market, as the buyers—the claim also suggested a rare situation in which José Mugrabi had misjudged the other bidders while pushing the painting’s price.
La Hara (1981): $35 M.
In May 2017, prominent collector and hedge fund manager, Steven Cohen, sold Le Hara at Christie’s New York for $35m, just above its $28 million high estimate. La Hara’s historical value is unmatched. The work represents an undercurrent within Basquiat’s practice that acknowledges the historical threat of violence facing marginalized urban communities. The painting depicts the image of a cop in uniform behind bars surrounded by insignia of authority. The title, La Hara, is Nuyorican slang for police officer, a simultaneous nod to Basquiat’s heritage and a reference to street culture. Featured in the Guggenheim museum’s November 2019 exhibition Basquiat’s Defacement, the theme of which revolved around the East Village arts community’s reaction to the brutal 1983 death of Michael Stewart at the hands of New York police— the piece is recognized for its cultural significance and biting analysis of contemporary socio-political affliction.
Untitled (1981) for $34.9 M.
In May 2014 Christie’s sold a work sourced from the Reiner Family Collection that had been originally purchased in 1982 from the artist’s New York dealer, Annina Nosei. The work carried a pre-sale estimate of $20-30 million but made a strong $34.9 million premium price. The crowned figure—a mechanism for Basquiat to elevate marginalized figures and give political and historical significance to his references—makes its highest appearance among Basquiat’s top ten selling prices.
Flesh and Spirit (1982-1983): $30.7 M.
In May 2018, Sotheby’s offered Flesh and Spirit. The painting was originally shown at Tony Shafrazi’s 1983 show “Champions” and bought by Dolores Ormandy Neumann, the wife of collector Hubert Neumann. When Dolores died she specifically left the painting to her daughter. Her husband, who inherited a large collection of blue-chip art from his father Morton Neumann, disputed the ownership and began to publicly interfere with the sale. A court ruling just days before the auction allowed the sale to ultimately proceed. Rare for its surface divided by four separate quadrants, Flesh and Spirit is also notable for its massive size, at 12 feet square, and that it is one of the few major paintings by Basquiat completed in a neutral palette. Bearing scratched skeletal images and written references to anatomy, the work comprising a dichotomy between the corporal and metaphysical, key themes core to Basquiat’s practice. The painting takes its title from historian Robert Thompson’s seminal 1983 book Flash of the Spirit on the legacy of African Art in global contemporary aesthetics. Despite the $30.7 million final price, the work sold below the auction estimates to a single bidder.
Untitled (1982): $29.3 M.
In November 2013, another untitled work from 1982 sold in a Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary evening sale, landing within its pre-sale estimate of $25-35 million. The work was included in the landmark 2018 Basquiat retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, which was the second most visited contemporary art exhibition in the world that year according to The Art Newspaper‘s annual museum attendance figures. Among the distinctions of the painting’s 1982 date is the fact that Basquiat began to use the crown symbol that year. In June of 1982, Basquiat was one of the youngest of 176 artists to be included in “Documenta 7,” the German art exhibition that takes place every five years. That same year, renowned photographer Van Der Zee shot the now iconic black and white portrait series of the painter that would later accompany Henry Geldzahler’s profile of the artist for Interview.
Untitled (Diptych), 1982: $28.9 M.
Selling in a Christie’s London contemporary evening sale in June 2013, this untitled diptych was the first of Basquiat’s paintings to set a record price for the artist in a European sale. The 6 feet by 8 feet wide double portrait became the symbol of Basquiat’s rise to blue chip status.