Sotheby’s Predicts Jean-Michel Basquiat Canvas Will Sell for Record $60 Million

The artist's auction record could fall for the second time in as many years.

Jean Michel-Basquiat, Untitled (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby's New York.
Jean Michel-Basquiat, Untitled (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby's New York.

For the second year in a row, we could see a new auction record for Jean-Michel Basquiat at New York’s May auctions. Sotheby’s New York is predicting a $60 million sale for Untitled (1982), which it is touting as a “monumental masterpiece,” at its Contemporary Art Evening auction on May 18.

That figure would smash expectations for a highly-anticipated Basquiat from the collection of Steve Cohen hitting the block at Christie’s New York that same week, which carries a high estimate of $28 million. It would also top the artist’s current high-water mark at auction, achieved at Christie’s New York last May with the $57.3 million sale of Untitled (1982). Adam Lindemann sold the 16-foot-tall canvas to Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese internet fashion billionaire.

Loic Gouzer of Christie’s stands next to the artwork Untitled by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Courtesy of KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images.

If that record does fall next month, it would mean that the top three Basquiat lots at auction all date to 1982, when the street artist was still a virtual unknown. His second-most expensive work, Dustheads, sold for $48.8 million at Christie’s New York in May 2013.

The canvas currently for sale appeared in a group show the summer of its creation at New York’s Alexander Milliken Gallery before being purchased by a private collector. It last sold at auction in 1984 for just $19,000. Were it to hit the $60 million mark, it would represent a roughly 300,000 percent return on investment.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, La Hara (1981). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, La Hara (1981). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

According to the Sotheby’s, the painting “has been virtually unseen since it last appeared on the market in May 1984,” having never been publicly displayed and is “known only from a small thumbnail picture in the artist’s catalogue raisonné.” It will join a late nude by Roy Lichtenstein and works by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, David Hockney, and Gerhard Richter in the upcoming auction.

The house had this to say about the work’s significance:

Untitled is among the most important paintings by the artist still in private hands. The vast canvas marks a critical moment in the artist’s career, executed in the same year that the artist had his seminal first solo exhibitions at Annina Nosei Gallery in New York and Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. Intricate layers of forcefully applied and impastoed oilstick, acrylic, and spraypaint in a spectrum of electric color coalesce in an intensely worked, rich surface that exemplifies Basquiat’s singular command as a master colorist and draftsman. Exploding in a torrent of irrepressible gestural energy that reflects Basquiat’s early beginnings in graffiti, the painting further inaugurated the beginnings of a new mode of figurative painting that took hold of the New York art world in downtown Manhattan in the early 1980s.

Of course, a big pre-sale estimate does not guarantee results. Earlier this year, Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) a 1982 Basquiat canvas expected to bring in as much as $22.4 million, sold for just $14.58 million at Sotheby’s London.

“Sotheby’s has backed this play with their own money,” wrote Marion Maneker in the Art Market Monitor, noting that the record 2016 sale had reversed somewhat of a downward trend in the Basquiat market. “It’s a bold, risky move.”

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