A 12-foot-wide canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat from 1983 from the collection of the Italian fashion designer Valentino Garavani is estimated to bring in more than $45 million during a Christie’s auction this May. The sales figure could potentially put the work among the most expensive pieces by the artist ever sold publicly.
The painting, titled El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile), depicts floating skulls and figures set against a background riddled with scrawled phrases alluding to pharaohs and ancient Egyptian sites. At the center of the conjoined triptych painting, the god Osiris leads a yellow boat down the Nile River.
It has resided in Garavani’s personal collection for 18 years, appearing in a 2010 issue of Vanity Fair in which the Italian fashion mogul was photographed seated in front of it. Four years earlier, Garavani paid tribute to the artist with a collection of graffiti print dresses using imagery licensed from the Basquiat estate archive. (In May 2021, Valentino cofounder Giancarlo Giammetti sold a 1983 painting by Basquiat for $93.1 million.)
A 2005 traveling Basquiat exhibit that originated at the Brooklyn Museum in New York showcased The Nile. Garavani presumably loaned it for the exhibition after having acquired it that same year at a Sotheby’s New York auction, where it sold for $5.2 million.
Backed with a third-party guarantee, the work will be offered during Christie’s 21st-century art evening sale at the house’s Rockefeller Center location on May 15. It is being sold “from a distinguished collection,” according to the house’s catalogue entry. The painting’s current estimated price is more than eight times the figure it achieved in 2005.
In a statement, Christie’s chairman Alex Rotter said that the artist completed the work at the age of 22, when “unpacking historical constructs of race” was at the forefront of his practice. The work’s Spanish title translates to “The Great Show”; it is sometimes referred to as “The Nile,” a phrase written on the back of the canvas, and as Untitled (History of the Black People).
In some corners, Basquiat’s paintings are considered financial trophies. Although the artist never lacked a market following, his works have in recent years commanded some of the largest sums at auction, with his name becoming a brand in the market sphere. The forthcoming sale is yet another sign that, 35 years after his death in 1988, Basquiat has become synonymous with luxury.
The Nile has also made its way into the pop-cultural mainstream. It appeared as a reproduction in the 2016 Showtime TV series Billions, the guiding plotline of which followed a high-profile rift between hedge-funder and collector Steve Cohen and a prominent US attorney. In interviews, the show’s organizers said that the staging for the series imagined Basquiat as a luxury symbol for the financial sector’s top echelons.
A portion of the proceeds from its sale in May will go to the Accademia Valentino in Rome, an institution run separately from the fashion label’s umbrella, but that shares its founders. A spokesperson described the academy’s mission as “dedicated to art, fashion, and education.” Some of the sale’s proceeds will support a project to build new spaces at its headquarters.
“The worlds of fine art and luxury are historically linked,” Christie’s contemporary art specialist Isabella Lauria told ARTnews. Lauria described Basquiat’s references “from art history to street art” as having becoming “engrained in shared cultural consciousness” across audiences.
Lauria added, “In a way, Basquiat saw the future, and his references have continued to become that much more salient.”