Auction houses gripped by 'Basquiat mania'

·3-min read
'In This Case' (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat goes under the hammer May 11 at Christie's.

Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of the most coveted artists among collectors. And while the phenomenon isn't new, it has recently been amplified after several paintings by the American artist came to market. Now, auction house Christie's hopes to make the most of this enthusiasm for Basquiat's work when "In This Case" goes under the hammer in May.

This large-scale painting is the last in a series of "skull" paintings completed by Basquiat between 1981 and 1983. At the time, he enjoyed widespread institutional recognition and had notably become the first Black artist to exhibit work in the biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. These were particularly prolific years, of which Basquiat said : "'I had some money; I made the best paintings ever."

And the art market has proved him right on several occasions. The skulls dating from this period are the New York painter's most coveted works at auction. The 1982 work "Untitled," for example, was acquired by the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for $110.5 million at Sotheby's in 2017. An unprecedented sum that sent Basquiat rocketing into the select club of artists to break the symbolic $100 million mark at auction. "He's now in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso," the art dealer Jeffrey Deitch said at the time in The New York Times.

While it's unlikely that "In This Case" will reach this kind of sum, it could still fetch some $50 million at the upcoming "21st Century Evening Sale" at Christie's -- an estimate that may also reflect the painting's prestigious provenance. Artnet News reports that the painting hails from the personal collection of Italian businessman Giancarlo Giammetti, co-founder of the Valentino fashion house. This information has not been confirmed by Christie's, although the work can be seen in a series of photos taken in 2013 for Architectural Digest magazine in the Italian magnate's New York apartment.

Basquiat vs. Basquiat

Whether or not it belongs to Giancarlo Giammetti, "In This Case" isn't the only major Basquiat work coming up for auction in May. "Versus Medici" is set to go under the hammer at the Sotheby's "Contemporary Art Evening Auction," where it's estimated to fetch $35-$50 million. "Not only does the painting stand among the most powerful within his oeuvre, but it is also a radical repositioning of art history, epitomizing Basquiat's enduring legacy as a true master and icon that firmly places him within the lineage of the Renaissance masters he confronts in this work," commented Grégoire Billault, Sotheby's Head of the Contemporary Art in New York, ahead of the sale.

These two Basquiat paintings will come to the market just weeks after "Warrior" sold for $41.8 million at Christie's Hong Kong. That particular sale helped Jean-Michel Basquiat become the most "bankable" Western artist on the Asian art market, as well as serving as further proof of the growing appetite for his works among collectors. So much so that the American painter turned out to be last year's most profitable contemporary artist , ahead of Banksy and Yoshitomo Nara, according to the Artnet "Intelligence Report." And the artist looks well on his way to securing the same title for 2021.

Caroline Drzewinski