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Record-Breaking $110.5 M. Basquiat Shocks Attendees at Sotheby’s $319.2 M. Postwar and Contemporary Evening Sale

As auctioneer Oliver Barker put it, “Now he goes into the pantheon.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat became the most expensive American artist ever sold at auction Thursday when an azure-and-black untitled skull painting from 1982 was bought by the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for $110.5 million after a ten-minute bidding war at Sotheby’s Postwar and Contemporary Evening Sale. The one lot out of a total of 49 accounted for over a third of the sale’s $319.2 million haul.

The Basquiat is now the second most expensive contemporary work ever auctioned—bested only by Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucien Freud (1969), which sold for $142.4 million at Christie’s in November 2013—and the sixth most expensive work overall. The previous record for the most expensive work of art by an American was Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), 1963, which sold for $105 million at Sotheby’s in November 2013.

“This was just one of those wonderful stories where you see something for the first time and something special happens, and then you have to convince people that the story is fantastic,” said Contemporary head Grégoire Billault after the sale. “And that’s what happened tonight.”

The sale smashed the Basquiat record achieved a year ago at Christie’s, when a red skull painting consigned by the collector and dealer Adam Lindemann went for $57.3 million, and that work also sold to Maezawa, who was on a bit of a buying tear that season. It’s clear his appetite for Basquiat—who, like Maezawa, played in punk bands and flaunted his rebellious spirit—has not abated a bit.

The price came as a shock to many in the sales room, who burst into gasps at various points during the extended back-and-forth. The work had been the talking point of the week, but many shared the sentiment that perhaps the work carried an inflated estimate and would not go too far past the $60 million mark, at which it was guaranteed by the house.

When Lindemann was asked whether he believed this skull work would double the record set by the one he sold last year, he said, “No, never, it’s impossible!”

“It doubled the estimate—when does that ever happen in this art market?” he added. “But the whole thing was two bidders, and it only takes two people in the world.”

Roy Lichtenstein’s Nude Sunbathing (1995) had a pre-sale estimate in excess of $20 million, and sold for $24 million. ©ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN/COURTESY SOTHEBY'S
Roy Lichtenstein’s Nude Sunbathing (1995) had a pre-sale estimate in excess of $20 million, and sold for $24 million. ©ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN/COURTESY SOTHEBY’S

The Basquiat was slotted at lot 24, right in the middle, and it overshadowed the rest of the proceedings. The lots before it were preamble, the lots after denouement. But the sale managed to be solid overall, achieving a sell-through rate of 96 percent and auction records for Jonas Wood, Wolfgang Tillmans, Mira Schendel, Blinky Palermo, and Takeo Yamaguchi. There were also five other works by Basqiat that sold during the sale, further solidifying him as the market’s artist of the moment.

There were a few big lots in the run up to the the Basquiat, including Roy Lichtenstein’s late stunner Nude Sunbathing (1995) which went to the bidder on the phone with Billault for $24 million. Lots such as Jean Debuffet’s Gesticuleur (1946) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Rigger (1961) prompted bidding from dealers such as Marc Glimcher, collectors such as Francois Odermatt, and advisors such as Wentworth Beaumont and Hugo Nathan, who all battled it out against the specialists on the phones.

And then came lot number 24.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here we have a masterpiece by Jean-Michel Basquiat,” Barker said, gesturing to the painting hanging to his right.

And then the bidding began at $57 million, and was quickly upped to $65 million with a lob by COO Adam Chinn, and then brought to $66 million by specialist Yuki Terase, who works in the Hong Kong office where she deals with Japanese clients. They went back and forth until Chinn hung on to the lead at $69 million, at which point Barker announced he could sell it, and began to raise the gavel.

But then—“70 million!” Barker said, pointing a few rows back in the center of the room, where someone had just entered the competition, causing a collective gasp, hundreds of head swivels, and a whoosh of rustling of chairs as everyone tried to see who was bidding. It wasn’t easy. Even as the bidder in the room went back and forth with Terase, and continued to go one more, he managed to remain under the radar, and faces too far away were washed with confusion, unable to tell who was taking this thing higher and higher.

Eventually, as the bidding breached $90 million, people started to notice that it was Nicholas Maclean who was very softly talking into headphones that he held right at his mouth, and issuing blink-if-you-miss-it nods when it was time to bid. Maclean, who founded the Eykyn Maclean gallery with fellow Christie’s alum Christopher Eykyn in 2010, eventually caught the eye of a few in the salesroom, and everyone darted their gaze between him, Terase and Barker, the scene as sizzling as any bidding war I’ve seen, with everyone present on edge. Then, when Terase went to bid the astonishingly high $98 million, Maclean began shaking his head while still speaking into the microphone. Barker pressed him, but he continued to shake his head. And so the gavel fell, with Terase’s bidder winning it with a $98 million hammer, or $110.5 million with fees. Applause rippled through the salesroom.

Terase’s close contact with Japanese collectors made Maezawa the logical guess for who was on the phone, and minutes after the sale, he confirmed it by posting an image to Instagram of himself with the work.

“I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece,” Maezawa wrote. “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.”

Maezawa is a founder of the Tokyo art institution Contemporary Art Foundation, and when he bought the Basquiat last year, he made plans to put it on view for the public during one of the two shows he holds per year. Presumably, this Basquiat will also make an appearance at the foundation. In a statement, Sotheby’s said, “The painting will eventually be housed in a museum based in Mr. Maezawa’s hometown of Chiba, Japan.”

The work was consigned by Lise Spiegel Wilks, the daughter of real estate mogul Jerry Spiegel, a fact that made for one of the more intriguing plot lines of this auction season: Wilks’ estranged sister, Pamela Sanders, chose to sell her inherited works at Christie’s, where the first batch of them sold for a total of $116 million Wednesday night.

And as for the collector on the other end of the phone with Nicholas Maclean, ARTnews heard from a source that it might have been Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the art-collecting brothers who rule over their Ultimate Fighting Championship fiefdom in Las Vegas, Nevada. Which would make sense—the Fertittas are big Basquiat collectors, and have been known to use Eykyn Maclean as go-betweens when purchasing art.

But when I raced downstairs to catch Maclean shortly after he left the sale room, and found him on the sidewalk outside the Sothby’s building, he declined to comment on whose behalf he was bidding.

Then I asked, generally, how he felt having been so close to being the bidder who won the year’s biggest lot.

“We almost had it!” Maclean said.

Then he lifted his long arms over his head in a dramatic fashion, made an exaggerated shrug, and sighed, “But at some point, you’ve got to stop.”