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Masterworks Offers $36mm Basquiat Canvas: A Breakdown of His Top Works

Masterworks Offers $36mm Basquiat Canvas: A Breakdown of His Top Works
August 3, 2023
Keenan Flack

Why are Basquiat Paintings Worth That Much?

'Versus Medici' - $50.8mm - May 2021


At just 22 years of age, oddly enough, Jean-Michel Basquiat was ascending to the height of his powers as an artist. Artists like Basquiat—who left this life too young—are often misunderstood during their lifetimes. Jean-Michel's work was well-celebrated during his time even in the most snooty of fine art circles.

Esteemed Belgian collector Stéphane Janssen acquired the work after a short visit to the artist’s studio in 1982. Around two years after the artist’s death another collector bought the work from Janssen, remaining in that collection for more than 30 years. In that time it appeared in several celebrated exhibitions including ‘Basquiat: Made in Japan”, a lauded 2019 retrospective of his work in Tokyo—a city the artist regularly visited.

‘Versus Medici’ is one of the more grandiose titles from an artist who was well-known for thinking quite highly of himself; this does not make the work any less powerful. The truth is that the young artist was juxtaposing himself against the Old Masters; ones who painted similarly powerful figures, albeit less haphazardly. The art market continues to understand Basquiat as a truly unique force in contemporary painting. He was inspired by everything he was pushing back against. If each artist’s oeuvre is a compilation of their influences, his was a collection of the best painting of the last millenium. As much as he saw himself as an opponent to the old masters, poetically enough, he ended up becoming one himself.

As for the picture itself, it is a challenge to put into words the vibrations that one feels emanating from it. Is it moving? The electricity that lives within a Basquiat canvas conjures such emotion, it may not be a precise depiction of light and shadow as the old masters wanted, but it conveys something much more real; much more human too.

'Untitled' - $57.3mm - May 2016 - Christie's

$85mm - May 2022 - Phillips


Standing at a behemoth 8 feet tall by 16 feet wide, Untitled, is maybe Basquiat’s most intimidating work. At the time of the May 2016 sale, it was a record for the artist: $57 million. Bought by Japanese super collector Yusaku Maezawa, the work has become among the artist’s most well known; publicity from the record in an otherwise unexciting 2016 market propelled the work into greater fame than it otherwise knew.

Painted during a trip to Modena, Italy in 1982, the 22-year-old Basquiat created multiple explosive canvases. Two such canvases have been hailed as among his greatest. 'Profit 1,' a similarly gargantuan piece that sold for $5.5mm in 2005, and ‘Untitled’ went to  collector Adam Lindemann in 2004 for $4.5mm. Both paintings were made during 1982, a year he created some of his most celebrated works.

The canvas changed hands between several top tier galleries: Annina Nosei in New York, then Akira Ikeda in Nagoya, and back to New York at Enrico Navarra, to Hanart TZ in Hong Kong. Until it was finally sold in 2004 at Sotheby’s where its buyer held onto it until the record-breaking sale in 2016 for $57.3mm; and then again in 2022 when Maezawa sold the piece at Phillips for $85mm to an unknown Asian buyer. Though the piece’s provenance has impressive names, it is a surprise to see such consistent price growth in spite of such quick turnover—three sales in under 20 years for such a celebrated piece is uncommon. But this canvas is obviously special enough to keep collector appetites high.

Artists that inspired JMB had created similarly beloved humongous canvases: Pollock’s ‘The She Wolf’ (1943), Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, and Twombly’s ‘Untitled (2005)’. Basquiat is as much a student of the old masters as he is of the quite recent masters. His works are a synthesis of a vast spectrum of art history—simultaneously taking us along for the ride as we are being taken off the rails.

From Top: Jackson Pollock, ‘The She Wolf’ (1943), Cy Twombly 'Untitled (2005)' Pablo Picasso ‘Guernica’ (1937)

One has to wonder the degree to which his market depends on the performance of this one work; could its next sale see it trending in the opposite direction? And therefore Basquiat’s market with it? Basquiat influencers mentioned before (Picasso and Pollock) have both seen multiple 9 figure sales—Pollock’s came via private sales, but still. If we are to see the top end of Basquiat’s market to continue trending up as it has for the last 20 years, might this be a billion dollar canvas in 20 years?

'In This Case' - $93.1mm - May 2021 - Christie's


In 1968 a young Jean-Michel Basquiat was hit by a car while playing outside; he spent a month in King’s County Hospital recovering. During this time his mother gifted him a copy of “Gray’s Anatomy”, a reference book of human anatomy that his mother hoped would help him better understand his recovery process. In doing so, she also gave her future artist son an even greater gift: a solid understanding of what constituent parts make up the human form.

Haphazard as his paintings may seem, Basquiat took special notice of how the human body (or skull in this case) fits together like a puzzle. At first blush the artist’s imagery is unstable, unintelligible even—though when further inspected we can see what underpins such chaos. Standard eyes, nose, teeth—but then gears for a jaw? A switchboard for the brain? We could spend pages unpacking the iconography of the artist, but suffice to say if you give his work the chance to explain itself, it will. This imagery gives the work momentum, movement, speed even. Look for too long and the skull may even begin to speak.

In This Case’, somehow even more so than the other two famous skull works, has quite some oomph behind it. The artist himself took a number of breaks while working on it—especially noteworthy for Basquiat—who was known to not be precious with his painting. It has been said that we are able to date his works by the sneaker prints left on his canvases, made by the artist stepping on the works on his studio floor.

The three skull canvases are not only of the utmost quality within the artist’s oeuvre, but they also represent some of the most impressive provenances. It doesn't get much more prestigious than the one has been in the Broad in LA since 1982.

The Broad

'In This Case' first went to Bischofberger in Zurich, then to Daniel Templeton in Paris, finally being bought at Sotheby’s in 2002 for $999,500 by an anonymous collector before going to the Gagosian or by directly by Gagosian—there are some blanks in the ownership history of the work. Five years later, head of fashion house Valentino, Giancarlo Giammetti, bought the work from Gagosian. It resided in his collection until it sold at Christie’s for $93.1mm ($81mm hammer) against an estimate of $50mm. Representing a nearly 27% CAGR over the last public sale 19 years earlier.

The final skull of the trio? Scroll down, reader!

'Untitled' - 110mm - May 2017 - Christie's


The final skull in the trio mentioned above is the artist’s current auction record. Similarly vibrant and explosive as the other two, but this one finds itself set against a bright blue background. The skull itself more strictly resembles a fully formed skull, as opposed to the others who find themselves fading into and out of their backdrops.

'Untitled' was executed in the early months of 1982 and sold through dealer Annina Nosei quickly thereafter. Collector Phoebe Chason bought the work at a Nosei group show for just $5,000—the artist’s share, a meager $2,000. He was overjoyed nonetheless. By June, Chason decided to sell the work to galleries Alexander Milliken where it was held for two years until it went up for auction.

May of 1984 found the work on the block at Christie’s, selling for $19,000—the steep rise explained by the artist’s rapid ascent to the annals of great New York artists. Long Island real estate magnate Jerry Spiegel and his wife Emily brought the work home where it did not see the light of day for the next 30 years.

No sales, no exhibitions, no public viewings. The work was hidden for the entire time. The artist only painted 200 major canvases in 1982 according to his 2000 catalogue raisonne. Many with similar histories to this, bought in the 80’s or 90’s and privately held for the next several decades. Seems simple enough, buy a quality work and hold it for decades, the problem is that these works were selling like hotcakes throughout that time. A New York Times profile in 1985 described the demand of Basquiat works from Nosei as: “So brisk, some over servers joked, that the paint was barely dry.”

The work only sold because the couple who acquired it had died, passing their collection onto their two daughters. Lise Spiegel Wilks sold only this canvas, the crown jewel of her parents collection; whereas her sister, Pamela Sanders, sold 107 works totaling more than $100mm at Christie’s. More than half of that sum alone was covered by the guarantee Sotheby’s offered Spiegel Wilks—$60mm for the lone Basquiat canvas. When the hammer fell this single work would go for over $110mm (with fees) to previously mentioned Basquiat super-collector Yusaku Maezawa.

If you trace back that price to the $19,000 Ms. Spiegel Wilks’ parents paid in 1984, that represents a CAGR of over 30% over 33 years. So next time The Met or the Whitney asks to borrow your Basquiat for a show, tell them you are pulling a Spiegel, and that your canvas won’t be seeing sunshine ‘till we have flying cars or a Mars colony.

'POLLO FRITO' - $36mm - Masterworks

$25.7mm - November 2018 - Sotheby's


Not the most expensive in the list by far, but it is the only one that you can own yourself. ‘Pollo Frito’ is being offered by Masterworks at a valuation of $36,689,000. The company acquired the works via a private collection in May of this year for $33,053,385. The IPO price represents a nearly 11% premium to this four month ago acquisition price. Before we go into justifying (or not) this valuation, let’s dig into why this is a top-tier JMB work.

Another work from Basquiat’s stellar 1982 year, ‘Pollo Frito’ exemplifies the artist’s mix of unique iconography with his scrawling, arresting prose. “DANGER”, “BROKE GLASS”—simple phrases that put the viewer in a state of caution. “ASBESTOS”, “TAR TOWN”—phrases that require more unpacking, but represent the artist’s environment. New York in the 80’s was a dangerous place and the artist tersely explains just a couple of reasons as to why.

Basquiat’s patented crown appears in the top left, calling back to the artist’s work as part of graffiti duo “SAMO©”. Just below the crown is another reminiscent Basquiat image, the skull. Held up just by a single line, you can almost feel the weight of the crown and skull about to topple it over.

Like most of the pieces in this list, the work was sold on behalf of the artist by Annina Nosei Gallery in New York. Atlanta gallerist Fay Gold was on a trip to the city, planning to spend $5,000 from her husband on a tennis bracelet she had been eyeing. Instead, while attending Basquiat’s solo show at Annina Nosei, she became enamored with ‘Pollo Frito’ and wrote a check for $5,200 to bring it home with her.

20 years later Gold sells the piece to private collector for a whopping $1 million. Over that two decade span she achieved an impressive 30% CAGR on her investment in the piece at Annina Nosei. If she had held until 2018 (assuming her not selling would not have lowered or raised the value at auction) the CAGR would have fallen to 26.7%; still an unbelievably good return; over the same span the S&P 500 returned (with dividends reinvested) 7.7% annually.

Gold impressively doubled down on Basquiat on another trip to New York where she acquired 11 drawings for a show she was putting on in Atlanta, paying only $16,500 for the group. At a San Francisco Art Fair in the early 90’s she sold a single drawing for that entire sum; imputing around a 25% annual return just on a single drawing. Not bad.

The Basquiat name itself is maybe the largest value driver of fine art throughout the contemporary era. This Masterworks IPO harks back to their original mission of offering only uber-high-quality works previously unavailable to anyone who isn't a member of the three comma club. Over the past five years they have headed downmarket as appetite for their fractional investments has ballooned. This Basquiat offering is as interesting an investment as it is a piece of art.

Investors must stomach an 11% price premium to four months ago as well as MW taking their shares by way of an up to -9.9% dilution to shareholders when buying shares of ‘Pollo Frito’. In spite of this, an opportunity to own a piece of such a storied piece from maybe the most important artist of the last 50 years still seems reasonable. Massive 1982 canvases from the artist are extremely scarce; they do not come up for auction very often, and when they do you will not be able to buy a piece at $20/share.

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