Last Thursday, Basquiat’s striking painting of a skull from 1982, Untitled, was sold to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for the “mind-blowing” sum of US$110.5 million (UK£85 million)—placing the late artist’s masterpiece at number six out of the 10 works ever sold for nine figures, and making it the most expensive American artwork ever sold.
Untitled was presented at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening auction, initially estimated to generate a guaranteed US$60 million (around UK£46 million). But the painting quickly surpassed the anticipated sale price as several eager parties engaged in a bidding war over the phone.
A 41-year-old entrepreneur and contemporary art collector, Yusaku Maezawa revealed himself as the buyer on his Instagram account, saying, “I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece. When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible.”
“Jean-Michel Basquiat completed Untitled in 1982 at a time when he was virtually unknown to the art world,” Sotheby’s explained in a press release a month before the landmark auction was held. “Never loaned for public exhibition since its acquisition 33 years ago, the appearance of the painting to market is made all the more remarkable given that it has been known only from a small thumbnail picture in the artist’s catalogue raisonné.”
In addition, Untitled displays a number of the artist’s best-known motifs—from the detailed layers of colorful paint that comprise the skull to Basquiat’s iconic crown, scattered markings and symbols, and the street art aesthetic—all of which contribute to the painting’s colossal value.
Basquiat was established as the highest-grossing American artist at auction in 2016, with 80 of his sold works garnering a total of US$171.5 million (around UK£131.6 million). According to the New York Times, the graffiti artist turned fine art painter has seen a rise in popularity over the last 15 years, with his auction records increasing more than tenfold.