Basquiat Brings $41.9 Million, Even Amid Digital Gold Rush

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“Warrior,” a 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat that was said to symbolize the struggles of Black men in a white-dominated world, sold for $41.9 million, with fees, at Christie’s auction house in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

Although Christie’s said it was the highest price paid at auction for a Western artwork in Asia, that may be a technicality: At a Sotheby’s New York sale in 2017, the Japanese billionaire collector Yusaku Maezawa paid $110 million for Basquiat’s “Untitled.” It remains the artist’s auction record.

Estimated at $31 million to $41 million, “Warrior” was offered as an unusual single lot. It leads a week of 20th- and 21st-century livestreamed auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London and Paris, which also include an old master and a rediscovered van Gogh. Christie’s was betting on Basquiat’s global appeal to help energize the art market as it tried to emerge from the pandemic-year slump.

Annual art sales fell 22 percent, to $50 billion, in 2020 compared to 2019, with revenues from public auctions declining 30 percent to $17.6 billion, according to a recent report by UBS and Art Basel. Supply of top artworks remains tight, with few distress sales or big estates on the horizon in the near term. Asking prices are astronomical, making it hard to close deals, dealers and auction executives said.

The “Warrior” result, with three bidders vying for the work, illustrates why Basquiat is a key figure in the blue-chip art market alongside Picasso and Warhol. It also shows why these stalwarts aren’t likely to be easily dethroned by the headline-grabbing NFT invasion, led by the $69.3 million sale of a work by the digital artist Beeple at Christie’s earlier this month.

Credit…The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, via Sotheby’s

Both Beeple and Basquiat “have a place,” said Alberto Mugrabi, the collector and dealer, whose father paid $250,000 for “Warrior” in the mid-1990s. “They are both in a category of very few artists. Beeple will bring a new audience to the art world and it’s an encouraging thing to see.”

While the outcome for Beeple’s work was unpredictable — bidding started at $100 — the Basquiat was a relatively safe bet for Christie’s, which was hoping to draw new people to the market from Asia. (The winning bid came from Christie’s Hong Kong representative.) The company guaranteed the seller an undisclosed minimum price and got an irrevocable bid from a third-party backer, ensuring the work would sell.

“Basquiat is one of the strongest markets coming out of the pandemic,” said Christophe van de Weghe, a dealer who specializes in Basquiats. “It’s worldwide. You can sell Basquiat, like Picasso, to someone in India or Kazakhstan or Mexico. You can have a 28-year-old spending millions on Basquiat and you can have a guy who is 85. He appeals to all kinds of people, from rappers to hedge-fund guys.’’

Born in Brooklyn, of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, Basquiat explored issues of race and inequality with graffiti-inspired style, rising to the pinnacle of the contemporary art world from modest beginnings in street art. He dated Madonna, collaborated with Warhol and became a legend after dying at age 27 in 1988.

“Warrior” depicts a figure with fiery eyes and a raised sword against patches of blue and yellow. It was painted on a six-foot-tall wooden panel with oilstick, acrylic and spray paint in 1982. It has come up for auction four times, including Tuesday’s sale. It last appeared at Sotheby’s in 2012, fetching $8.7 million. At the time it was bought by the real estate mogul Aby Rosen.

Christie’s declined to confirm that Rosen was the seller of “Warrior,” but its provenance indicates that the current owner bought the work in 2012. Rosen offered the work for sale privately last year, according to a dealer with firsthand knowledge of the sale. Rosen didn’t return emails seeking comment.

The Basquiat sale was followed by two back-to-back auctions of 20th- and 21st-century art as well as Surrealist art that totaled $273.5 million, exceeding the low estimate; 93 percent of the works found buyers.

A painting by the elusive artist Banksy, “Game Changer,” soared to 16.7 million pounds (about $23.2 million), more than four times the high estimate. Most of the proceeds, including part of Christie’s buyer’s premium, will be donated to various health and charity organizations in Britain.

Painted by hand (as opposed to using a stencil), the work depicts a boy playing with a doll dressed as a superhero nurse, while Batman and Spiderman toys lie discarded in a bin nearby. The image appeared one day last May at the Southampton General Hospital, accompanied by a note: “Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.”

Asian collectors participated actively throughout the sales, according to Christie’s, bidding on everything from hot emerging Western artists to classical Surrealist pictures.

In 2020, during the pandemic’s down market, Basquiat’s 1982 painting “Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump” was among the highest known transactions. Bought by the billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin for more than $100 million, it has been hanging at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Although Basquiat was very prolific, there’s a limited supply of work: about 900 paintings and 3,400 works on paper. By contrast, Beeple’s record-setting “Everydays — The First 5000 Days” comprised the 5,000 works the artist created over 13 and a half years.

Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art, recently had a chance to realize the scope of Basquiat’s appeal while attending the Brooklyn Nets’ victorious game at the team’s arena on Feb. 25. Basquiat’s signature crown was on the court’s floor.

“I thought, ‘Wow! How cool is that!’” Rotter said this week. “Basquiat is everywhere.”

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