Jean-Michel Basquiat occupies star billing on the auction block in New York this season, catapulting the artist into the rostrum of 20th century greats nearly three decades after his death.
Riding high on last year’s $57 million auction record set when a Japanese billionaire snapped up a self-portrait, at least 14 works by the US wonderkid of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent are on sale at Christie’s and Sotheby’s next week.
“He was a street artist so it took a bit of time for him to be assimilated,” explains Loic Gouzer, chairman of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s. “Now every museum in the world is begging to get Basquiat.”
Christie’s and Sotheby’s — the esteemed houses founded in 18th century London — are chasing combined sales of at least $1.1 billion when they auction hundreds of contemporary, modern and impressionist works of art from May 15-19 in New York.
The top estimate for the week is a 1982 Basquiat, “Untitled” — a skull-like head on a giant canvas in oil-stick, acrylic and spray paint, for which Sotheby’s hopes to smash a new record at more than $60 million.
It has been held by its current owners ever since being bought in 1984 at Christie’s for $19,000.
The Brooklyn-born artist died of an overdose aged 27. Artprice says the value of Basquiat works rose 506 percent from January 2000 to October 2016.
“It’s the golden kid, it’s the one that died young, lived strong and has been creating a body of work that looks like nothing before and looks like nothing after,” says Gregoire Billault, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art.
An African American in a white art world, much of his work focused on ordeals endured by blacks — a subject of renewed resonance in the wake of nationwide US protests since 2014 about the shootings of unarmed black men by police.
Fittingly, Christie’s top Basquiat offering is “La Hara” — a 1981 acrylic and oil-stick of an angry-looking New York police officer estimated at $22-28 million.
“Context is the best helper to explain art and I think it’s great to have it right now,” says Gouzer.
Otherwise Christie’s top lot is Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of George Dyer” valued at $50 million, the British artist’s first portrait of his long-time muse and lover, a handsome petty thief from London’s East End.
The triptych was once owned by author Roald Dahl and has been shown at the Tate Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Christie’s is also chasing big bucks for another artist who is even less of a household name but another increasing commercial force: $35-55 million for Cy Twombly’s largely abstract “Leda and the Swan.”
“Most people even today will say, ‘Oh my child can paint this.’ Your child cannot paint this,'” says Christie’s specialist Koji Inoue.
Sotheby’s set the Twombly auction record in 2015 at $70.5 million. The artist was the subject of a retrospective in Paris last year.
“We feel like he’s finally getting his due,” Inoue told AFP.
Highlights of the impressionist and modern sales are a Picasso portrait of his mistress Dora Maar, valued at $35-55 million at Christie’s, and Egon Schiele’s “Danae” at Sotheby’s for $30-40 million, painted when he was 19 years old.
Much of the art being offered this season is fresh to market — at Christie’s more than 80 percent of the works in both categories have never been offered at auction or have been off the market for 20 years or more.
Experts say they are focusing on quality rather than quantity, not expecting to reach the giddy heights of 2015, when records tumbled and Picasso’s “The Women of Algiers (Version 0)” became the most expensive art ever sold at auction for $179.4 million.
“I think that this market is very smart right now, I don’t think it’s the same craziness it used to be in 2015,” said Billault.
He disagrees that interest is cooling in China, where new wealth has driven much of the exponential growth.
Neither have political earthquakes — Donald Trump’s election in the United States and Brexit in Britain — fanned sluggish sales.
“Last November everyone wondered, given our election,” says Jessica Fertig, senior Christie’s specialist in Impressionist and Modern Art.
“We had an incredibly strong sale, so we have no reason to feel that this season is going to be any different,” she said.