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A Japanese billionaire bought a Basquiat masterpiece for $110.5 million in New York on May 18, setting a new auction record for the 20th-century great nearly 30 years after his death, Sotheby’s said.

The 1982 “Untitled” — consisting 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 May 19 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 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.

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 before ultimately going to Maezawa via a telephone bid.

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 eventually be housed in a museum based in Maezawa’s hometown in Chiba Prefecture.

“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.

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.

First published in The Japan Times on May 19.

Warm up

One-minute chat about billionaires.


Collect words related to art, e.g., museum, paint, canvas.

New words

1) gratitude: thankful feeling, e.g., “Please send my gratitude to her.”

2) levity: lack of seriousness, e.g., “This is no time for levity.”

3) provoke: to cause, e.g., “The comment provoked criticism from opponents.”

Guess the headline

Japanese b_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Maezawa buys Basquiat painting for r_ _ _ _ _ $110.5 million


1) What does the Japanese buyer of the artwork mentioned in the article do?

2) Where will the art piece go after the new owner receives it?

3) What is the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction?

Let’s discuss the article

1) Do you enjoy art?

2) What is the maximum price you would pay to get an artwork?

3) Which artwork would you like to buy if you were a billionaire?






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