With each auction season, Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings are brought to sale, and along with them come hefty sums of money. This fall is set to be no different in that regard, with Christie’s set to sell Basquiat’s 1982 painting The Guilt of Gold Teeth at a marquee New York auction on November 9. Bidding for the nearly-14-foot-wide work, made when Basquiat was just 22 years old, will start at around $40 million, a Christie’s spokesperson said, although an estimate is only available upon request.
If the painting reaches its estimate, it will place among the most expensive works by Basquiat ever to be sold publicly. Just seven works by Basquiat, who died in 1988 at 27, have been auctioned for more than $40 million, with most them made in the early ’80s, during the era of the artist’s career that is considered most high-value to dealers and collectors. Three of those works were sold in 2021.
Part of the reason The Guilt of Gold Teeth was given such a grand price tag is because it belongs to just a handful of works that the artist produced while in Modena, Italy, as his star was rapidly ascending. Having worked under the moniker SAMO previously, Basquiat had had the first show as “Jean-Michel Basquiat” in 1982 at New York’s Anina Nosei Gallery; the exhibition sold out on the night it opened to the public. A similarly popular show at Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich followed.
After these touted exhibitions, Basquiat was set to have his second show at dealer Emilio Mazzoli’s gallery in Modena. In a famed 1985 New York Times Magazine profile, Basquiat recalled that Mazzoli provided the artist with eight blank canvases and effectively expected them to be filled with his signature scrawled imagery in the course of a week. Feeling exploited, Basquiat said, “It was like a factory, a sick factory. I hated it.” The show was canceled, and the artist severed his ties with Nosei shortly thereafter.
The Guilt of Gold Teeth, one of the eight paintings from that batch of works, features at its center a black-clad figure with a skull for a face and a top hat on its head. That creature refers to Baron Samedi, who in Haitian Vodou is considered connected with death. The painting also loosely alludes to Basquiat’s own rising star: the made-up word “ASPURIA,” written twice over in the painting’s leftmost portion, has been considered a reference to the Italian word “aspirare,” which means “to aspire.”
Ana Maria Celis, Christie’s head of 21st-century art sales, said in a statement that the painting “represents an absolutely pivotal moment in Basquiat’s career,” and was made as the artist was undergoing “a cultural reckoning with his own identity as a Black American.”
According to Christie’s, the painting, like most others by Basquiat, has been held privately for an extended period of time. The house said that its current owner had held it for nearly a quarter of a century. The owner bought it at Sotheby’s New York in 1998, when it last sold for a mere $387,500, coming in below its estimate. “In this heady market, it qualifies as a good deal,” art market reporter Judd Tully noted at the time in the Washington Post.
No longer, however, are Basquiats like this one considered bargains. The second-most expensive Basquiat ever sold, a 6½-foot-tall painting of a skull, came to auction at Christie’s this past May from the collection of Valentino cofounder Giancarlo Giammetti and sold for $93.1 million.