Jean-Michel Basquiat has been the art world’s poster boy for more than a decade. In 2021 his market superstardom rose to dizzying new heights, with sales of his work climbing to a record high of $439.6m that year.
Since then, there have been suggestions his market has cooled, with Basquiat’s auction sales dropping by 50% in 2022, according to Artnet. This was in large part down to fewer trophy works coming to the block in 2022—five at the $5m-plus mark compared with a bumper 14 in 2021, according to data gathered by Art Market Research.
There are some early signs, however, that this downward trajectory could be reversing with several big-ticket works offered in the New York auctions last month. At the very top end, Christie’s sold El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) (1983) for $58m ($67.1m with fees). At least two bidders—one of them the US mega-dealer Larry Gagosian—pushed the price over its $45m guaranteed estimate. The eight-figure result represents the fourth-highest price ever fetched by a Basquiat work at auction.
Recent exhibitions, including King Pleasure at The Grand LA in Los Angeles (until 31 July)—the first show to be presented by Basquiat’s family—and Basquiat x Warhol at the Fondation Luis Vuitton in Paris (until 28 August), keep shedding new light on the artist, who died from a drug overdose in 1988 aged just 27. In eight short years, it is estimated Basquiat created around 3,000 works, skyrocketing from graffiti artist to art-world darling.
In Basel, Basquiat: the Modena Paintings opened at the Fondation Beyeler this week (until 27 August). The exhibition, which is insured for $800m, reunites eight large-scale works he painted in Modena, Italy in 1982. By Basquiat’s own account it was a miserable experience, where he was made to work in a warehouse—“a sick factory” as he called it—provided by gallerist Emilio Mazzoli. A fallout over payment meant the show never took place. Annina Nosei, Basquiat’s New York dealer at the time, found new buyers for the paintings, among them the Swiss art dealer and collector Bruno Bischofberger, who bought four—Profit I, Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, Untitled [Woman with Roman Torso (Venus)] and The Guilt of Gold Teeth.
Bischofberger is one of the key players in Basquiat’s market, as are Tony Shafrazi in New York, along with the Mugrabi family collectors and dealers. Though the artist’s estate is not represented by a gallery (Basquiat’s father Gerard manages sales from the estate), Larry Gagosian was instrumental in building Basquiat’s career and continues to deal on the private market. During the artist’s lifetime, Gagosian organised three solo shows, including one in Los Angeles in 1982, which sold out to prominent US and European collectors. Some paintings, Gagosian recalls, were priced at just $8,000 each.
Another Swiss collector who saw Basquiat’s potential early on was Ernst Beyeler, who bought two key paintings: Philistines and Self-Portrait (both 1982), from Nosei. “Beyeler put on an exhibition in 1983 titled Expressive Painting after Picasso [which included four paintings by Basquiat, including the above two]. And so very early on, you had the leading gallerist in the world pairing Basquiat with Picasso,” says the Los Angeles dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who had a close relationship with Basquiat, travelling to Art Basel with the artist and Nosei in 1982.
At this year’s fair, Deitch is offering Valentine (1983-84), a portrait of Basquiat with his girlfriend Paige Powell, both portrayed as chimpanzees feeding each other (priced at $6.5m). Basquiat gave the painting to Powell as a Valentine’s Day gift in 1984 and it has been in her possession ever since. “I would say it’s the most romantic painting he ever made,” Deitch says.
For several years, Deitch sat on the Basquiat authentication committee, which disbanded in 2012 as the cost of legal cases mounted against it made its work untenable. “It became impossible,” Deitch says. “But during the 20-year run, we were able to authenticate most of the body of work.”
The dealer says there are still pieces that come up that have not been authenticated, “but are totally authentic”. He adds: “Collectors feel confident when they see a full provenance of buying. And Basquiat’s hand was so distinctive; people who really know the work can tell instantly. But, as we know from the Orlando Museum of Art scandal, fakes are still a problem.” In June 2022 a Basquiat exhibition was closed down after the FBI raided the Florida museum, seizing all 25 paintings, which were purportedly fakes.
Basquiat does not have a catalogue raisonné, but in 1996 the dealer and collector Enrico Navarra published a comprehensive survey of his work, which was updated in 2000. “It’s considered the bible for Basquiat,” says Alessandro Diotallevi, a senior specialist in post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s.
Diotallevi notes that authentication is “a complex subject”, adding: “We really try to stick to works with a proven provenance of early exhibitions: physical and clear proofs of their history. If we don’t have enough clear proof, we avoid offering the works. That happens a lot more with works on paper than paintings.”
However, as an artist who started out painting graffiti in the street, some of Basquiat’s genuine earlier works were painted on bits of cardboard, doors and other materials. His Xerox series, for example, which Basquiat sold on the street, “are completely authentic”, Deitch says.
As for his paintings, 1982 is considered the “golden year”. As the critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote of Basquiat’s paintings from that year: “You can’t learn to do this stuff. It’s about talent, served by commensurate desire and concentration—and joy.” Eight of the ten world auction records for the artist are held by works made between 1981 and 1983.
While the US and Europe remain the dominant centres for Basquiat sales—between 2017 and 2023, £487m-worth of sales took place in the US and £177m in Europe, according to Art Market Research—interest is growing in Asia. During the same period, £127m-worth of sales took place in the region.
Basquiat’s most expensive work at auction, a skull painting from 1982 which fetched $110.5m with fees at Sotheby’s in New York in 2017, was purchased by the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa in a move that cemented Basquiat’s market (there has been one reported private sale at the $100m-plus level).
Collaborations between Basquiat’s estate and brands such as Coach and Dr Martens have brought his work to a younger generation, while rappers including Jay-Z, Lil Nas X and Rick Ross have frequently name-checked the artist in their music. Jay-Z is a known collector of Basquiat’s work, as is U2 bassist Adam Clayton and the actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp.
As Basquiat’s collector base has broadened, so too has the conversation around his work. “Each time there is a new exhibition, we learn something new about Basquiat,” Diotallevi says. “The discourse is taking a more scholarly trajectory. It’s moved on from 20 or 30 years ago, when people were still describing him as a street artist or a Black artist. Now he is simply considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”
As Jeffrey Deitch simply puts it: “He’s the real deal.”