A Japanese billionaire bought a Basquiat painting for a record $110.5 million

Agence France-Presse
Untitled Basquiat piece sold for a record $110.5 million to Japanese collector

A Sotheby's official speaks about an untitled painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat during a media preview on May 5, at Sotheby's In New York. The piece sold on May 18 for a record $110.5 million to Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

A Japanese billionaire bought a painting by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat for $110.5 million in New York on Thursday, setting a new auction record for the 20th century great nearly 30 years after his death, Sotheby's said.

The 1982 "Untitled" of a skull-like head in oil-stick, acrylic and spray paint on a giant canvas was the star lot of the auction season this May, which wraps Friday with more than $1 billion in sales.

Sotheby's said it was snapped up by the same Japanese entrepreneur, 41-year-old Yusaku Maezawa, who set the previous Basquiat auction record last year, dropping $57.3 million on a self-portrait.

The $110.5 million price tag was a record for any US artist at auction and the highest at auction for a post-1980 artwork, Sotheby's said.

"I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece," Maezawa wrote on Instagram alongside a picture of himself with the picture.

"When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible."

Cheers and applause greeted the sale, which almost doubled the previous Basquiat auction record of $57 million. During bidding, the auctioneer offered occasional moments of levity and encouragement.

"It's a great masterpiece at $98 million dollars," he said to laughter in the room. The $110.5 million price tag includes the buyer's premium.

Basquiat, born in Brooklyn to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, died in 1988 of an overdose aged just 27 after a fleeting eight-year career.

"Untitled" provoked a tense 10-minute bidding war in the room and on the telephone, before ultimately going to Maezawa via telephone. 

The canvas had been virtually unseen in public since being bought in 1984 for $19,000. It was valued pre-sale in excess of $60 million.

'Pantheon of greats'

Sotheby's announced that the painting will be housed eventually in a museum based in Maezawa's hometown of Chiba, Japan.

The house parted with a total of $319 million worth of post-war and contemporary art at Thursday's evening auction, one day after rival Christie's sold $448 million at its own version of the same sale.

The subject of much of Basquiat's work — ordeals endured by blacks in America — is finding renewed resonance in the wake of nationwide US protests since 2014 about the shootings of unarmed black men by police.

Christie's sold Basquiat's "La Hara" — an acrylic and oil-stick of an angry-looking New York police officer — for $35 million on Wednesday.

"Breaking $100 million for a work which is that recent is definitely extraordinary. I think it just speaks about the talent of this guy," said Gregoire Billault, Sotheby's head of contemporary art.

"I've never seen so much emotions in such a painting," he said. "He's bringing something never seen before."

"Now he goes into the pantheon of great, great artists," said Oliver Barker, chairman of Sotheby's Europe. "It's as simple as that."

Christie's announced Thursday that its impressionist, modern, post-war and contemporary sales this week totaled $842.5 million, which it said was up $220 million over its sales last season in November.

Sotheby's concludes its week of sales on Friday.

Sotheby's also sold Roy Lichtenstein's "Nude Sunbathing" for $24 million Thursday and broke records for Keith Haring, Blinky Palermo, Mira Schendel, Wolfgang Tillmans, Jonas Wood and Takeo Yamaguchi.

This season saw a majority of art either coming fresh to market or being offered at auction for the first time in 20 years or more.

Pablo Picasso holds the world record for the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction. His "The Women of Algiers (Version 0)" fetched $179.4 million at Christie's in New York in 2015.

By AFP's Jennie Matthew in New York.

Will you support The World today?

The story you just read is available to read for free because thousands of listeners and readers like you generously support our nonprofit newsroom. Every day, the reporters and producers at The World are hard at work bringing you relevant, fact-based and human-centered news from across the globe. But we can’t do it without you: We need your support to ensure we can continue this work for another year. 

Make your gift of $100 or pledge $10 monthly, and we’ll thank you on The World’s podcast in early 2023. And every gift will get us one step closer to our goal.