Why Do Billionaires Love Jean-Michel Basquiat?

One-percenters continue to drive up prices for Basquiat's work, defying auction estimates

A person standing in front of “In This Case,” a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat
"In This Case," painted by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1983, recently sold at Christie's for $93.1 million.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

When Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa paid over $110 million for a Basquiat painting in 2017, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl didn’t mince words.

“Let’s take a moment to be nauseated by the price paid, which attests to the obscene amount of excess wealth sloshing around in the world today,” he wrote at the time. The 1982 painting, Untitled, created when Jean-Michel Basquiat was just 21, became the sixth most expensive work sold at auction, and the most expensive from an American as well as an African-American artist.

One of the most interesting stats from that sale, however, is that the hammer price was almost twice the $60 million it was expected to top out at. As collector and dealer Adam Lindemann said at the time, per ARTnews, “It doubled the estimate — when does that ever happen in this art market?” 

When it comes to Basquiat, a lot. On Tuesday, a 1983 painting from the late Brooklyn artist, In This Case, sold at Christie’s for $93.1 million, even though it was only estimated to sell above $50 million and was previously sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 for under $1 million.

Why the exponential increase in value? As Bloomberg writes, “Despite decades of market success, prices for Basquiat’s work have only truly taken off in recent years, driven by demand from a small group of billionaires.”

Those one-percenters include Maezawa, who founded Japanese fashion retail giant Zozotown, and who also set a Basquiat auction record when he bought a painting of a devil in 2016 for $57.3 million. Bloomberg also cites publishing magnate Peter Brant and Ken Griffin, founder of the hedge fund Citadel, as Basquiat fans. 

After the blockbuster sale in 2017, The New York Times described the appeal of Basquiat’s work as “a combination of raw talent, compelling biography and limited supply.” The talent is apparent to anyone who has ever come face to face with his work in a museum, the compelling biography includes his friendship and collaboration with Andy Warhol, and the limited supply is partially a result of his untimely death of a drug overdose at just 27 years of age.

Does this latest sale mean we’ll see another record-breaking work courtesy of the billionaire art-collecting class soon? All signs point to yes, and maybe sooner than you think; on Wednesday night, Sotheby’s is set to auction Basquiat’s Versus Medici with a high estimate of $50 million.

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