Basquiat’s Painting of a Triumphant Warrior in a Boxing Ring Could Fetch $15 Million at Phillips This Fall

The artist grew up watching boxing with his father.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Ring (1981). Image courtesy Phillips.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Ring (1981). Image courtesy of Phillips.

In anticipation of the fall auction in New York, Phillips has announced the latest blue-chip consignment: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Ring (1981), estimated at $10 million to $15 million. The work depicts a boxer standing in the ring with his fists raised and clutching a spear. The similarity of the figure to a Basquiat self-portrait from that year has led some experts to believe that the artist was depicting himself in the ring.

The artist grew up watching Joe Lewis, Muhammad Ali, and other fighters on TV with his father. “These fond memories with his family also fostered a great deal of respect in Basquiat for the athletes as individuals,” Scott Nussbaum, Phillips’s head of 20th-century and contemporary art in New York, told artnet News. “His idols were always fighting two battles—constantly having to overcome racial inequality outside of the ring as they worked toward their championship titles in the ring. Their endeavors resonated with Basquiat and he chose to portray the central figure in The Ring with both boxing and warrior iconography.”

As for the question of who the work depicts, that’s “up for debate,” Nussbaum said, “but throughout his life, Jean-Michel closely identified with boxers, athletes and warriors, so there is perhaps an autobiographical element to this composition.”

Phillips notes that the work was painted during a year in which the artist “found unprecedented levels of critical and commercial success: by the end of 1981, Basquiat stood victorious.”

The provenance of the work, including two past auction results, provides some insight into the arc of Basquiat’s rising market in recent years. In 1999, The Ring sold for $442,500 (estimate: $180,000–250,000) at Christie’s Los Angeles. In 2012, it sold again, this time at Sotheby’s New York for $7.6 million against an estimate of $4 million to $6 million.

Two years ago, Basquiat joined the ranks of artists who’ve broken the $100 million mark at auction when an untitled 1982 painting sold for a record $110.5 million to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.

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