A painting by graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Untitled” by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Photo courtesy of Rocor at Flickr Creative Commons.

Ever since Sotheby’s became the go-to name in art auctions, only ten works have sold for over $100 million. Now it’s eleven.

Late in the evening on Thursday, May 18th, an untitled 1982 painting by graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was sold to a private collector for $110.5 million, making it the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction, on a tier with Picasso and Francis Bacon.

“Untitled” is a large, vivid piece of a multi-colored skull in big, sweeping strokes over layers of other graffiti. It was painted early in Basquiat’s brief career. The black, Brooklyn-born artist only spent a few years as a celebrity of art collectors before his death in 1988.

Since his death, 80-odd works have generated nearly $172 million in auctions before this sale, making him the highest-grossing American artist. With this auction, several more records have been added to his legacy: highest auction price for an American artist, a black artist, and for a work created since 1980.

“Untitled” was bought by Japanese collector and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who’s bought other multi-million dollar pieces by Basquiat before. In 2016, he spent nearly $60 million on a painting of horned devil at auction at Christie’s. He’s planning to open a private museum dedicated to the artist in his hometown of Chiba, Japan.

“But before then I wish to loan this piece—which has been unseen by the public for more than 30 years—to institutions and exhibitions around the world,” said Maezawa in an interview. “I hope it brings as much joy to others as it does to me, and that this masterpiece by the 21-year-old Basquiat inspires our future generations.”

Even if Basquiat’s posthumous worth as an artist has been driven up by a single dedicated collector, the records his art has set are important for American art, for black artists, and for the market in New York City.

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