Jean-Michel Basquiat – Best auction revenue of the year in the contemporary paintings and contemporary drawings categories…



A controversial figure who enjoyed substantial media exposure, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work moved quickly from the anonymity of the New York subway to the spotlight of galleries and bourgeois homes. Today, the Jean-Michel BASQUIAT legend is still very much alive. To celebrate what would have been his 50th birthday, the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland has been hosting a major retrospective of his work (9 May – 5 Sept. 2010) that will shortly be moving to the Paris Musée d’Art moderne (15 Oct. – 30 Jan. 2011).

Before his first New York exhibition in February 1981 (New York / New Wave at P.S.1), Basquiat survived by selling painted T-shirts and hand-drawn post cards. One of his first buyers was Andy WARHOL who rapidly became a friend and mentor. Their alliance resulted in roughly sixty joint works that mix Warhol’s detached Pop aesthetic with Basquiat’s fiery expressiveness. Of the four joint works sold at auction, the most interesting fetched $2.3m in May 2010 (Sotheby’s).
For Basquiat, the collaboration with Andy Warhol opened the door to instant success: at 21, he was the youngest artist to be invited to the Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany (1982). The following year his work was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennial in New York and at Larry Gagosian’s gallery.
His “underground” art suddenly appeared on museum walls. Demand for his work multiplied and auction companies started to include his works in their catalogues. In May 1986, Sotheby’s sold a 1983 painting entitled Hector for $23,000. Today one would expect to pay at least 100 times that price (± $2.3m) to acquire a similar work by the artist at an auction.

Price explosion
After his death from an overdose on 12 August 1988, Basquiat’s prices started accelerating very quickly. Three months later, Christie’s offered a mixed technique work dated 1981 for approximately $25,000 which fetched $100,000. A few days later, Sotheby’s experienced a similar scenario with his Red rabbit (same estimate and same result). Meanwhile, the art market was in a generalised state of euphoria.
In May 1989, Sotheby’s generated the first Basquiat result above $200,000 (Equals, estimated $70,000 – $90,000). The first 7-figure result came on 12 November 1998 for a self-portrait. Offered for the tidy sum of $400,000 – $600,000 by Christie’s, his Self-Portrait (1982) went under the hammer for 3 million dollars!

His price index continued rising through to 2007, a year in which the annual auction revenue from his work rose by 278%. In effect, just twenty years after his death, his total annual auction revenue amounted to $102m (hammer prices) just behind that posted by Henri MATISSE and far ahead of Fernand LÉGER’s.
The pace of auction re-sales of his work started to accelerate: Warrior, acquired in November 2005 for $1.6m at Sotheby’s, fetched the equivalent of $5m two years later (£2.5m, London). On 15 May 2007, a mixed technique work sold for $13m at Sotheby’s, Basquiat’s first ever 8-figure result!

Over the last twelve months, 18 paintings by the artist have generated a total auction revenue of €27.6m (July 2009 – July 2010). This is the best score for a contemporary artist for the period in the paintings category and Basquiat also has the best score in the drawings category with €2.35m from 23 lots.

Benchmark value
Considered by investors as a safe investment, Basquiat is a good indicator of the art market’s overall health and the relatively close auction re-sales of his works provide a reading of the market’s temperature. For example, over the last two years, his Joy painting has been sold three times. In February 2008, i.e. several months before the art market began to meltdown, Joy – a minor work on xeros – fetched the equivalent of €1.12m (Phillips de Pury & Company). Nine months later, it lost 53% of its value at the New York sales (fetching approximately €527,000). On 2 June 2010, Sotheby’s offered the same work with a prudent pre-sale estimate of €700,000 to €900,000 and sold the work for €1.25m.

In his relatively short life, Basquiat produced 1,000 paintings and roughly 1,500 drawings. With demand for his work being particularly strong, all of his periods and techniques sell well. Today, a small graphite or lead pencil drawing sells for between 10 and 20 thousand euros on average and his colour drawings fetch between 50 and 250 thousand euros. Only 10% of Basquiat’s auction lots fetch less than €6,200. While the bulk of these are prints (representing 14% of the lots sold), some original drawings are offered in this price range, even in France (17% of lots sold). In December 2009, Millon-Cornette de Saint Cyr sold five works in ink for prices ranging from €4,600 to €7,200. These are interesting acquisitions when one considers that certain multiples are more expensive than unique pieces such as the screen-print Academic study of the male figure (limited edition of 13) valued at between €8,000 and €10,000.