Here’s the Little-Known History of the Robin’s Egg Blue Basquiat Painting That Stars in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s New Tiffany Ad

The painting is due to go on display at Tiffany's Fifth Avenue flagship in New York.

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You might think a top-notch ad campaign would involve renting out a celebrated cultural site or recruiting a high-powered spokesperson. But for its flashy new “About Love” campaign, which is already tearing its way across the Internet, Tiffany & Co. has raised the game: not only did the company recruit two of the most famous people in the world to star, it also incorporated a Basquiat painting it recently acquired for, sources say, well into the eight figures. 

The new campaign, which makes a splash for the jeweler following its $15.8 billion acquisition by luxury conglomerate LVMH in January, depicts Jay-Z and Beyoncé flanking a robin’s egg blue Basquiat titled Equals pi (1982). The duo was chosen, according to Tiffany, because their 13-year relationship is emblematic of the kind of love story the brand’s jewelry embodies. 

But what’s the story behind the painting? The canvas dates from what is widely regarded as Basquiat’s most coveted year and contains a number of his characteristic motifs, including the crown and skull.

It is awash in a light blue hue made famous by Tiffany, although there is no evidence that the artist created the work with the brand in mind. Alexandre Arnault, Tiffany executive vice president of products and communications, makes the case there may be some connection: “The color is so specific that it has to be some kind of homage,” he said in an interview with WWD, which first reported on the new campaign.

Equals pi will eventually be displayed in Tiffany’s flagship boutique on Fifth Avenue, which is currently undergoing renovation, Arnault told WWD. Several sources told Artnet News the painting most recently sold to the Arnault family (Alexandre is the son of LVMH chairman and mega-art collector Bernard Arnault) for a price in the range of $15 million to $20 million. A representative for LVMH did not immediately respond to Artnet News’s request for comment.

Although WWD reported the painting had never been seen before, it isn’t entirely unknown to the art world or market. According to the Artnet Price Database, the painting was offered at Sotheby’s London in June 1990, just two years after the artist’s death at age 27, with an estimate of £180,000 to £250,000 (about $300,000 to $420,000) but failed to sell. (Anyone considering making the purchase at the time who is familiar with Basquiat’s current auction prices is likely kicking themselves over that one.)

Six years later, the blue canvas came to auction again, also at Sotheby’s London, this time with a significantly lower estimate of £100,000 to £140,000 ($170,000 to $235,500). It sold for £155,500 ($253,000).

It didn’t take long for Twitter sleuths like Greg Allen to track down the work’s most recent previous owner: the Sabbadini family, a Milan-based clan behind the eponymous jewelry house. A 2018 feature in magazine shows mother and daughter Stefania and Micól Sabbadini posing in front of the painting, which hangs above their sofa.

Basquiat’s auction record currently stands at $110.5 million, set at Sotheby’s in spring 2017. Bernard Arnault, one of the top contemporary art collectors in the world, staged a widely lauded retrospective of Basquiat’s work at his Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in late 2019.

Tiffany said in a statement that it included the painting in the ad because art has been a “common thread throughout” the couple’s “love story.” The duo is also known to have at least one work by the artist in their personal collection.

Tiffany is putting major firepower behind the yearlong campaign featuring the Carters, which includes a short film of Beyoncé singing “Moon River” to her husband. It’s destined for major exposure in the coming months, including a takeover of all the digital billboards in New York’s Times Square.

Also grabbing attention is the fact that Beyoncé is wearing the famous 12.85-carat Tiffany yellow diamond necklace in the photograph. When Audrey Hepburn sported the famous diamond in promotional images for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the same gem was set in a necklace called the Ribbon Rosette. It was reset in 2012 with an additional 100+ carats of diamonds. Beyoncé is reportedly only the fourth person ever to wear it.

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