The years 1981 to 1984 were a brief period of intense artistic output that cemented Jean-Michel Basquiat’s place within the canon of art history. Initially working under the moniker SAMO, Basquiat, a friend of artist Keith Haring and actress Patti Astor, became an integral member of the social circle around the Mudd Club, the night club–gallery hybrid that defined downtown that decade. In 1981, Mudd Club cofounder Diego Cortez put the 21-year-old Basquiat—then known mainly as a street artist—in a group show called “New York/New Wave,” and he was well on his way to fame from there.
By 1983, Basquiat had found his way into the posse of the former Met curator Henry Geldzahler. That year, a discussion between Geldzahler and the artist published in Interview magazine limned the now-famous key elements of Basquiat’s work: royalty, heroism, and the streets. Despite his youth, the artist’s creative agility and his political acumen allowed him to emerge as major force unifying street art with painting, in effect bridging the gap between modes that have historically been considered high and low art. By the time Basquiat died at age 27 in 1988, he had become one of the top artists working in New York.
Over the subsequent decades, Basquiat’s stature as an artist would be reevaluated by the very institutions in which he remains under-represented. Basquiat is among the most highly valued artists in the art market, and his work, all completed in the brief period between 1981 and 1984, regularly sells at auction for tens of millions of dollars. Below, a look at the top 10 public sales of the artist’s works.
Sold for: $29.3 million
In November 2013, another untitled work from 1982 sold in a Christie’s postwar and contemporary art evening sale, landing within its presale estimate of $25 million–$35 million. The year of the painting’s creation marked the point when Basquiat began to have crowns recur frequently throughout his work. That year also marked a significant period of growth for Basquiat: he was the youngest artist to show at the 1982 edition of Documenta, the German art exhibition that takes place every five years, and he sat for a portrait by renowned photographer James Van Der Zee that would later accompany Henry Geldzahler’s profile of the artist for Interview. Since its auction in 2013, Untitled has continued to be a major attraction. It was included in a 2018 Basquiat retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, which was that year’s second-most-visited contemporary art exhibition in the world, according to the Art Newspaper’s annual museum attendance figures.
Flesh and Spirit, 1982–83
Sold for: $30.7 million
Flesh and Spirit was first shown by the legendary dealer Tony Shafrazi in 1983 and is considered an exemplary Basquiat work, if not a rare one, because it uses an almost exclusively neutral palette. At 12 feet square, it bears scratched skeletal images and written references to human anatomy. The painting takes its title from historian Robert Thompson’s seminal 1983 book Flash of the Spirit, which is about the legacy of African art in global contemporary aesthetics.
The painting’s sale at Sotheby’s in May 2018 was unusual because of the public-facing controversy it generated. Originally, the painting was bought from Shafrazi’s New York gallery by Dolores Ormandy Neumann, the wife of collector Hubert Neumann. When Dolores died, she specifically left the painting to her daughter. Her husband, who inherited a large collection of blue-chip art from his father Morton Neumann, disputed the ownership and began to publicly interfere with the sale. A court ruling just days before the auction ultimately allowed the sale to proceed. When the painting finally did hit the block, it became one of the most expensive Basquiat works, selling for $30.7 million.
Sold for: $34.9 million
No Basquiat work with a crowned figure has ever sold for more than Untitled, from 1981, which came up for auction in May 2014 at Christie’s. It was sourced from the estate of Maryland collector Anita Reiner, who died the year prior, in 2013; she originally purchased it in 1982 from the artist’s New York dealer Annina Nosei. The work carried a presale estimate of $20 million–$30 million, and it went on to best that range, making $34.9 million with premium.
La Hara, 1981
Sold for: $35 million
In May 2017, prominent collector and hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen sold La Hara at Christie’s New York for $35 million, just above its $28 million high estimate. La Hara’s historical value is unmatched. The work represents an undercurrent within Basquiat’s practice that acknowledges the historical threat of violence facing marginalized urban communities. The painting depicts the image of a cop in uniform behind bars surrounded by insignia of authority. Its title is Nuyorican slang for “cop,” and acts as a simultaneous nod to Basquiat’s heritage and a reference to street culture. Recognized for its sociopolitical critique, the work was featured in the Guggenheim Museum’s 2019 exhibition “Basquiat’s Defacement,” organized by Chaédria LaBouvier, which revolved around the East Village arts community’s reaction to the police killing of Michael Stewart.
The Field Next to the Other Road, 1981
Sold for: $37.1 million
Originally exhibited in a Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli show in 1981, The Field Next to the Other Road grew out of a period in which Basquiat began to rely heavily on skeletons, halos, and allegorical imagery. It is one of the few Basquiat paintings that depicts fully recognizable figures. In 2015, Basquiat’s former dealer, Tony Shafrazi, offered The Field Next to the Other Road at Christie’s, where it made $37.1 million with premium. Nearly a year after its sale, Christie’s filed legal claims demanding the prominent Mugrabi family pay for the painting in full. (The family had initially put down a $5 million deposit, hoping Christie’s would find a buyer in a private sale.) The legal claim revealed that the Mugrabis, who are active clients in the Basquiat market, had bought the work.
Sold for: $41.9 M.
Selling in a Christie’s single-lot sale in Hong Kong in March 2021, this work, depicting a crowned figure wielding a weapon came from the collection of German-American real estate mogul Aby Rosen. Having purchased it in 2012 at Sotheby’s for $8.7 million, the new price at Christie’s saw the work appreciate in value by around 380 percent in nine years. It went to a buyer on the phone with the houses’s Hong Kong contemporary art specialist Jacky Ho, outbidding Christie’s New York chairman Alex Rotter’s client.
Sold for: $45.3 million
The sale of Flexible was a major moment for boutique auction house Phillips, which had struck an arrangement with Basquiat’s estate to sell works still held by his heirs, the artist’s two sisters. In May 2018, Phillips offered Flexible with a $20 million low estimate—a seemingly conservative price point for a work by such a dominant market figure. Unlike many Basquiat works, this was not a painting done on canvas—it was done, instead, on fence slats. Measuring eight-and-a-half feet tall, it is one of the largest Basquiat paintings ever to have come up for auction. The image of a mythical king so reminiscent of the kind of mysterious central figure that appears in Basquiat’s most valuable works surely helped attract aggressive bidding, ultimately leading the house to take in $45.3 million for it.
Sold for: $48.8 million
Dustheads will forever have an asterisk next to its sale price. In 2013 Basquiat’s prices started to surge. In May of that year, Dustheads sold at Christie’s New York for $49 million, making $20 million more than another of the artist’s works sold the previous November. Reportedly, the seller was London collector Tiqui Atencio, who had purchased the work from Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1996. In a 1996 review published in ARTnews of Shafrazi’s show, critic Elizabeth Hayt saw the painting as “an emblem of rage and terror.”
Two years after the Christie’s sale, a New York Times investigation into the use of Manhattan luxury real estate by foreign buyers revealed as an aside that Malaysian financier Jho Low had been the buyer. In subsequent years, Low would be accused of misappropriating funds from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a government-run company, to pay for a lifestyle that allowed for a number of high-value art purchases. Dustheads would eventually be used by Low as collateral for a loan from Sotheby’s financial services arm, and the proceeds of the loan were used to build a large yacht. Low defaulted on the loan, which gave Sotheby’s title to the work. A private sale to of D1 Capital hedge-fund manager Daniel Sundheim reset the price at just $35 million.
Versus Medici, 1982
Sold for: $50.8 million
In its auction debut, Versus Medici (1982) sold during Sotheby’s marathon evening sale event in May 2021, during the same week that a Basquiat skull painting from the collection of Valentino cofounder Giancarlo Giammetti sold at Christie’s for $93 million. Versus Medici was offered with an estimate of $35 million. The last recorded owner was the late Israeli Belgian collector Yaron Bruckner, the founder of Belgian retailer Eastbridge Group, who died in 2013; he acquired the work in 1990. The guaranteed work went to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s Americas chairman Lisa Dennison for a hammer price of $44 million, or $50.8 million with buyer’s fees. The buyer was later revealed to be mega collector and casino mogul Steve Wynn.
Untitled (Devil), 1982
Sold for: $57.3 million
Basquiat’s Untitled (Devil) sold at Christie’s in May 2016. Sold from the collection of Adam Lindemann, the billboard-size work has been considered iconic for Basquiat collectors because it features the devil image that appears throughout much of the artist’s work. In 1982, as Basquiat was creating Untitled (Devil), he began spending time in Los Angeles, meeting collectors who would come to be some of the most influential players in the art industry, such as Eli and Edythe Broad.
Lindemann’s sale of Untitled (Devil) was a canny choice by the collector. In the spring of 2016, the Basquiat market had seen a serious pull-back. Many collectors would have considered that a bad time to offer one of the most famous Basquiat images at auction. Undoubtedly helped by a guarantee proffered by Christie’s, Lindemann rightly surmised that the relative quiet of the spring 2016 auctions would focus attention on his lot. He was proven right when collector Yusaku Maezawa bought it for $57.3 million, exceeding its initial high estimate of $40 million.
In This Case, 1983
Sold for: $93.1 million
The star lot in the Christie’s newly reformatted New York 20th century art evening sale in May 2021 was Basquiat’s 6½-foot-tall skull painting In This Case (1983), from the collection of Valentino cofounder Giancarlo Giammetti. In the event, eight bidders vied the work, which had a third-party guarantee, including one from Hong Kong. It sold for $93.1 million to a bidder on the phone with Christie’s contemporary art specialist Ana Maria Celis. The painting is from a trio of works that includes the $110.5 million Basquiat skull painting bought by Japanese billionaire businessman Yusaku Maezawa at Sotheby’s in 2017. The third work in that group is in the Broad Museum collection. In This Case last sold at auction in 2002, but Giammetti didn’t get his hands on it just then—Sotheby’s sold it below the low estimate to Gagosian for $999,500, and Giammetti later bought it from the mega-dealer in 2007. Since its last appearance at auction in 2002, the estimate had increased 50 times over, from $1 million to $50 million.
Sold for: $110.5 million
Untitled, from 1982, became the most expensive work by Basquiat ever to sell at auction when it sold at Sotheby’s New York contemporary art evening auction in May 2017, far surpassing its presale high estimate of $60 million. Made as Basquiat’s fame was on the rise, the work features a giant skull-like form against a partially blue background. There was reason for the excitement surrounding the work: it hadn’t been seen publicly since 1984, when it was bought at Christie’s by Jerry and Emily Spiegel for $19,000. The landmark sale established the artist among the top echelon of auction blockbuster names when it sold for $110.5 million. The painting went to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who had also bought the second-most-expensive Basquiat work (see entry #2) just one year prior. The sale made the painting one of the 10 most expensive works of all time. Maezawa later showed it at the Brooklyn Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, and it was featured in a Basquiat survey at the Brant Foundation in 2019.