Japanese billionaire Maezawa buys Basquiat painting for record $110.5 million

AFP-JIJI, AP, Staff Report

A Japanese billionaire bought a Basquiat masterpiece for $110.5 million in New York on Thursday, setting a new auction record for the 20th century great nearly 30 years after his death, Sotheby’s said.

The 1982 “Untitled” of a skull-like head in oil-stick, acrylic and spray paint on a giant canvas was the star lot of the auction season this May, which was to wrap up Friday with more than $1 billion in sales.

Sotheby’s said it was snapped up by the same e-commerce entrepreneur, 41-year-old Yusaku Maezawa, who set the previous Jean-Michel Basquiat auction record last year, dropping $57.3 million on a self-portrait. “When I saw this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art,” said Maezawa, who plans to display it in his museum in Chiba after loaning it to institutions and exhibitions around the world.

Founder of the online clothing retailer Zozotown, Maezawa has also set up a Contemporary Art Foundation aimed at supporting modern artists, including musicians.

The $110.5 million price tag was a record for any U.S. artist at auction and the highest price at auction for an artwork created after 1980, Sotheby’s said.

Cheers and applause greeted the sale, which almost doubled the previous Basquiat auction record of $57 million. During bidding, the auctioneer offered occasional moments of levity and encouragement.

“It’s a great masterpiece at $98 million,” he said to laughter in the room. The $110.5 million price tag includes the buyer’s premium.

But Maezawa is not the first Japanese art collector to pour bundles of cash into world-famous works.

In 1987, Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Co., which merged into Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance Inc., bought Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpiece “Sunflowers” for $39 million.

Basquiat, born in Brooklyn to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, died in 1988 of an overdose at age 27 after a fleeting eight-year career.

“Untitled” provoked a tense 10-minute bidding war in the room and on the telephone, before ultimately going to Maezawa via telephone.

The canvas had been virtually unseen in public since being bought in 1984 for $19,000. It was valued pre-sale in excess of $60 million.

Sotheby’s announced that the painting will be housed eventually in a museum based in Maezawa’s hometown in Chiba Prefecture.

Sotheby’s parted with a total of $319 million worth of postwar and contemporary art at Thursday’s evening auction, one day after rival Christie’s sold $448 million at its own version of the same sale.

The subject of much of Basquiat’s work — ordeals endured by blacks in America — is finding renewed resonance in the wake of nationwide U.S. protests since 2014 about the shootings of unarmed black men by police.

Christie’s sold Basquiat’s “La Hara” — an acrylic and oil-stick of an angry-looking New York police officer — for $35 million on Wednesday.

“Breaking $100 million for a work which is that recent is definitely extraordinary. I think it just speaks about the talent of this guy,” said Gregoire Billault, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art.

“I’ve never seen so much emotions in such a painting,” he said. “It’s just pure emotion. He’s bringing something never seen before.”

On the high-profile sale, Japan Times art writer John L Tran said, “(Basquiat’s) reputation as an artist is not necessarily blue chip, and there are issues as to whether his market value is more to do with the art world trying to build up a legend around an artist who conveniently died young and has a good backstory.”

“Without talking to him directly, it’s not possible to say definitively what Maezawa’s motivations were in spending so much on this purchase. It could be a PR stunt or genuine passion for the artwork,” Tran observerd. “You could say it’s a naive move, or that Maekawa sees real originality in Basquiat as a kind of outsider to the mainstream, like Ito Jakuchu was to art of the Edo Period.

“Maybe, as an entrepreneur, Maekawa was attracted by the energy and dynamism of the piece. With that kind of money spent you could almost say Maezawa has created his own kind of performance piece,” Tran said.

Sotheby’s also sold Roy Lichtenstein’s “Nude Sunbathing” on Thursday for $24 million.

The sale also broke a string of records for lesser-known artists — Blinky Palermo, Mira Schendel, Wolfgang Tillmans, Jonas Wood and Takeo Yamaguchi.

Christie’s announced that its impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary sales this week totaled $842.5 million, which it said was a $220 million increase over its sales last season in November.

Sotheby’s was to conclude its week of sales on Friday.

This season saw an emphasis on art being offered for the first time.

Christie’s said more than 80 percent of its lots were coming to the market fresh or for the first time in 20 years or more.

Sotheby’s said 65 percent of works in Thursday’s sale made their auction debut and nearly 75 percent for the first time in 20 years.

Both auction houses saw competitive bidding from around the world.

Pablo Picasso holds the world record for the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction. His “The Women of Algiers (Version 0)” fetched $179.4 million at Christie’s in New York in 2015.