Basquiat: his market and his legacy

Beyeler exhibition aims to place the artist, who died at 27, high in the canon


The profile of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of just 27, has never been higher. The Beyeler Foundation is devoting a large-scale retrospective of more than 100 works to the Brooklyn-born painter, whose output is limited to just eight years, but whose critical acclaim is mirrored by the market interest in his work, with over 30 works on show at Art Basel on six stands.

“Basquiat’s strength was in his ability to merge imagery from the streets, newspapers and TV with the spiritualism of his Haitian heritage, injecting both into an intuitive understanding of the language of painting,” Jeffrey Deitch, the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, says.

Deitch’s opinion is reflected in the wide base of collectors for Basquiat’s work. The list of lenders to the Beyeler show reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary collecting, including the Miami-based Rubells and the Bramans, hedge-funder Steve Cohen, London jeweller Laurence Graff and tennis champion John McEnroe. The Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Zurich-based Daros Foundation have also loaned works. Other collectors include star names from pop music and Hollywood, such as Madonna and Leonardo DiCaprio.

“Major collectors of modern art view [Basquiat’s] work as comparable to that of Picasso and Dubuffet,” explains Beyeler director Sam Keller. “He was prolific, and produced 900 to 1,000 paintings and 2,000 to 3,000 works on paper. This amount is a condition for an active and sustained market.”

At auction, the highest price ever paid for a Basquiat stands at $14.6m for an Untitled work from 1981. It was set at the height of the art market boom at Sotheby’s New York in 2007. In November 2008, at the depth of the financial recession, an Untitled, Boxer from 1982 still made $13.5m (in the late 1990s it had sold for about $800,000). At the fair there are two works priced at $12m, at Shafrazi (F7) and Bruno Bischofberger (C9): Gas Truck, 1984, at the former, and the 1982, eight-panel work The Dutch Sellers at the latter, who represented the artist worldwide. These two dealers are among a small, powerful group of players in this market. But Edward Tyler Nahem (F15) feels that the market is so broad today that it is no longer possible for a few dealers to control it. He is showing two works, Catharsis, 1984, priced at $9m, and Untitled (Self-portrait: the King), 1981, at $2.8m, while L&M Arts (B18) has a large work on paper, Ribs, Ribs, 1982, priced at $2.6m. Yesterday, dealers reported interest but few confirmed sales.

“Like many markets, Basquiat’s is two-tiered,” says Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman of Christie’s, which sold the Untitled, Boxer. “The most coveted material is rare, generally dating from the best period, 1981-83. There are good later works but overall the quality is more inconsistent.” Collectors really want what Gorvy describes as “emblematic works, preferably with a single figure with strong colours and a desirable scale”. Many of the top works are now with a handful of collectors: Peter Brant, Eli Broad, Philippe Niarchos and Dennis Scholl, and the collector/dealer family of Mugrabis. They are a major presence in the market, and passionate about the artist: Alberto Mugrabi even has the signature Basquiat crown tattooed on his wrist.

Below the top level is what Gorvy calls “a level of good, B+ works that sell for $800,000-$3m. These works are often bought by dealers who sell them on. There’s a healthy trade here.”

The majority of the works in the Beyeler show come from private collections. “Museums missed the boat,” says Alberto Mugrabi. Now, he says, they will have to wait for donations. His rumoured inventory of hundreds of works “is not as good as it was because I sold works”.

Since Basquiat’s death in 1988, his market has developed steadily—in line with overall art market trends—with a dramatic peak in 2007 when, at the height of the art market boom, the global auction volume for his work was over $115m, according to Artnet. During the 2008-09 financial crisis, turnover dropped back to 2006 levels, also reflecting lower volumes at auction.

In May this year Untitled (Stardust), 1983, depicting a jazz saxophonist sold at auction for $7.3m, well over the $2.5m pre-sale estimate, a price that startled some art world specialists. It was consigned by the Basquiat estate, which also has an authentication committee including John Cheim of Cheim & Read (A9), collector Larry Warsh and Basquiat’s father, Gerard.

“The Basquiat market has matured in the last few years, there’s a lot of collectors, not the old timers, mainly new collectors,” says collector Adam Lindemann, who lent to the Beyeler show. “They want Basquiat, not De Kooning. The old guard may still wrinkle their noses but Basquiat is blue-chip.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Basquiat comes of age'