In 1985, Jean Michel Basquiat was on the cover of The New York Times magazine, in a photograph which accompanied an article dedicated to the first African American artist to cause so much uproar on the art market. People went nuts for his raw, honest, edgy art, seemingly simple yet of a stunning visual impact based on Neo-Expressionism and Primitivism.
The unique views of the world in Basquiat paintings, social issues, power structures and racism ooze with pure honesty and a strong will to use his voice in the exploration of his thoughts and opinions. During his lifetime, but especially after his untimely death, the demand for a Jean Michel Basquiat paintings were quite high, and the prices for his art grew steadily.
Today, we can hardly ever talk about an auction where there were no Basquiat paintings sold for a jaw-dropping amount of money, and in this article, we will review his 10 most expensive artworks, created in the early 1980s when Basquiat left SAMO on the street and moved into a painting studio to become a legend.
Sold for $23 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2014, Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers) is one of the Jean Michel Basquiat paintings that is considered as one of his first mature works, complex in their imagery, but also painting techniques, as it is composed of joined wood panels covered in feathers, paper collage, crayons, and his trademark acrylic. Along with Untitled (Black Tar and Feathers), the painting gave way to the artist’s more elaborate creative approach in choosing the support for his artworks.
The 1981 Untitled (Black King Catch Scorpio) painting by Jean Michel Basquiat sees the figure of a fisherman proudly presenting his catch, a fish hanging at the end of his fishing stick. Filled with symbolism from his Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage, the work once again puts on display Basquiat’s vivid imagination, through the black and white skeleton of his “black king” and the colorful background which puts it in focus. The painting achieved $23,5 million at Christie’s New York in 2012.
This large-scale diptych, one more work created in the pivotal year of 1982, belongs to a series of double portraits, and it sees two mirrored figures set in an environment much lighter than Basquiat’s usually dark, consuming backgrounds. While the painting has no clear visual meaning, it does mark the artist’s entrance in the world of superstars, showing that his art will nevertheless remain as powerful as ever. The work was sold at Christie’s in London in 2013, for $25,7 million.
Although Basquiat’s Untitled (Yellow Bone King) stayed closer to its low estimate at Christie’s New York, selling for $26 million in 2013, it was described as one of the most important contemporary artworks of today and one of the most recognized paintings of Jean Michel Basquiat. A life-size painting, it shows a rather dramatic portrait of one of his “black kings”, skeletons, self portraits and childhood heroes, apparently oozing in fury through the depth of the colour red.
Executed on a soaring monumental scale across two hinged panels, Flesh and Spirit was described as a radically raw and magnificent altarpiece for the modern age. This Jean Michel Basquiat artwork synthesizes divergent influences, demonstrating the artist's artistic maturity.
The title of the piece pays homage to the 1983 text Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Philosophy, a seminal examination of African religious tradition by Robert Farris Thompson, which the artist once referred as the best book on African art he had read. Imbuing his painting with the symbolic potency of a relic, Basquiat resurrects the inherent power of a centuries-old spiritual tradition, re-animating the signs, symbols, and deities of Thompson’s treatise.
The work was sold on May 16th, 2018 at Sotheby's New York during their Contemporary Art Evening Auctions for $27,000,000.
The 1981 Untitled (Tar Tar Tar, Lead Lead Lead) painting depicts an alleged warrior, an intimidating figure holding a sword in a hectic battlefield. Inspired by Basquiat’s graffiti imagery, the work reflects on something that could be his personal triumph over something, a positive and impressive sentiment expressed through a series of scrabbles, brushstrokes, splashed paint and oilstick scrawls. The painting was sold in 2014 at Christie’s New York, for $31 million.
At Christie’s in 2017, the 1981 La Hara was offered as part of the Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale, straight from the collection of one Steve Cohen. Having appeared only once before in auction, nearly three decades ago, the painting became Basquiat’s fifth most expensive artwork. It is quite a personal piece, whose title plays on the Puerto Rican slang word for a policeman - “jara”, and in fact, it depicts a menacing white cop driving home.
Inspired by his trip to Italy, Jean Michel Basquiat created a rather unusual large-scale painting, entitled The Field Next to the Other Road. Soaked in pastel beige with the presence of his trademark red and black, it is one of his earliest works, a strong statement of his intentions as an artist and an overture to a type of character which will mark his entire career to come. It was sold at Christie’s New York in 2015, for $33 million, a little below the high estimate of $35 million.
Created in 1984, Flexible serves as a summation of three central themes in the artists' oeuvre - royalty, heroism, and the streets. It depicts a tribal king with arms raised and interlocked above his head, conveying confidence and authority. He seems to be crowning himself, ushering in Basquiat’s representation of the black male as king or divinity figure. It exists in solitude, looming over the viewer. Picture supports is made from wood slat fencing material, used in more than 17 paintings made between 1984 and 1986, which allowed the artist to integrate his art with his penchant for life on the street
The work was sold on May 17th, 2018 at Phillips New York during their 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale for $40,000,000.
Other than being Jean Michel Basquiat’s most expensive artwork, having achieved whopping $43,500,000 at Christie’s New York in 2013,
Dustheads is also one of his most powerful paintings, in all its rawness and totemic supremacy. His two frenetic, radiant characters immersed in pitch black background are a true documentation of Basquiat’s original painting style, technique, skill, artistic vision. At this point, it is fair to say that Dustheads represents a beacon of an unprecedented expression of thoughts and a portrait of an inner being that brought Jean Michel Basquiat his international fame and ensured his place of one of the most significant painters in history of arts.
Japanese collector and online fashion mogul Yusaku Maezawa was the star of the night at Sotheby’s in May 2015, as he purchased not one, but two of the now most expensive Jean-Michel Basquiat artworks. The 1982 Untitled (Black Devil Head) sold for $57.3 million. Maesawa also said he plans to put the painting on display at his museum in Chiba, Japan, after giving it to museums and exhibitions around the world for a loan.
When it got sold for whopping $110.5 million ($98 million hammer price), Basquiat’s Untitled broke many records: it set a new high for a work by a United States artist and is the first work of art created since 1980 that went for more than $100 million. On the list of the most expensive artworks ever, it is now right behind When Will You Marry? by Paul Gauguin, which cost nearly $300 million back in 2015. Untitled is also now in the hands of Yusaku Maezawa, who was “struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art.” He also acquired works by Jeff Koons and Richard Prince that same evening.
Make sure you check out all Basquiat artworks in auctions over in our database!