This May, Christie's will present Jean-Michel Basquiat's three-metre triptych El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile), also known as Untitled (History of the Black People), as the leading highlight for the entirety of the house's Spring Marquee Week of sales.
Backed with a third-party guarantee, the monumental painting, which addresses the collective experiences of historical African diaspora, is expected to sell in the region of US$45 million – a price which allows it to join the ranks of the most expensive works by Basquiat ever sold at auction.
The painting comes from the personal collection of legendary Italian fashion designer Valentino Garavani, and partial proceeds of the sale will benefit the Accademia Valentino to support art, fashion, and education.
Lot 6B | Jean-Michel Basquiat | El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile), Acrylic and oilstick on canvas mounted on wood supports in three parts
Executed in 1983
172.5 x 358 cm
Provenance (Edited by The Value):
- Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
- Enrico Navarra, Paris
- Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 9 November 2005, lot 38 (Sold: US$5.2 million)
- Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
- Property from a distinguished collection
Estimate on request (in the region of US$45,00,000)
Auction House: Christie's New York
Sale: 21st Century Evening Sale
Date and Time: 15 May 2023 | 7:00pm (New York Local Time)
Number of Lots: 27
A key figure in the blue-chip art market, Basquiat's works have commanded some of the highest prices at auctions. His record now stands at an astonishing US$110 million, achieved by his azure-and-black skull painting Untitled in May 2017 – which also made him the most expensive American artist ever sold at auction then.
Taking second place is another iconic skull painting, In This Case, which sold for US$93.1 million in May 2021 by Valentino's co-founder Giancarlo Giammetti.
With an estimate in the region of US$45 million, the present lot El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) is likely to be his sixth-most expensive work sold at auction, and could potentially make it to the forth place if it hammers at its estimate.
Basquiat's Global Auction Records:
- Untitled (1982) | 183.2 x 173 cm | Sold: US$110,487,500, Sotheby’s New York, May 2017
- In This Case (1983) | 197.8 x 187.3 cm | Sold: US$93,105,000, Christie’s New York, May 2021
- Untitled (1982) | 239.4 x 501 cm | Sold: US$85,000,000, Phillips New York, May 2022
- Versus Medici (1982) | 214 x 137.8 cm | Sold: US$50,820,000, Sotheby's New York, May 2021
- Dustheads (1982) | 182.8 x 213.3 cm | Sold: US$48,843,750, Christie's New York, May 2013
- Flexible (1984) | 259.1 x 190.5 cm | Sold: US$45,315,000, Phillips New York, May 2018
Untitled (1982) | 183.2 x 173 cm | Sold: US$110,487,500, Sotheby’s New York, May 2017
In This Case (1983), 197.8 x 187.3 cm | Sold: US$93,105,000, Christie’s New York, May 2021
Dustheads (1982) | 182.8 x 213.3 cm | Sold: US$48,843,750, Christie's New York, May 2013
Flexible (1984) | 259.1 x 190.5 cm | Sold: US$45,315,000, Phillips New York, May 2018
El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) was last seen on the auction block in 2005, when it was sold for US$5.2 million by Enrico Navarra – a gallerist, book publisher, and prominent collector of Basquiat’s work – to Valentino Garavani.
In fact, the Italian fashion mogul has been no stranger to auctions: in 2008, he paid a then-record sum of US$8.4 million for Richard Prince's 2002 canvas Overseas Nurse at Sotheby's London; in 2015, he underbid Pablo Picasso's Dora Maar portrait Femme Assise Sur Une Chaise at the house's New York sale.
An avid art collector who has long appreciated Basquiat, Garavani once paid tribute to the talented artist in 2006, when he designed dresses in a graffiti print licensed from the artist archive for Valentino's Fall collection.
While the current work has resided in Garavani's personal collection for nearly two decades, it made appearance in a 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, in which the designer was photographed seated in front of the painting at his New York home.
The present work could be seen hanging at Garavani's New York home in a photograph taken of him in 2010 for Vanity Fair
Valentino's 2006 Fall collection paid tribute to Basquiat with dresses in a graffiti print licensed from the artist's archive
El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile)
Painted when Basquiat was just 23 years old, The Nile is one of three large-scale canvases executed in 1983, the year which saw him move from documenting his own personal narrative of growing up in a predominantly white city, to tackling issues of representation within the grand theater of world history.
Walking through Black history in its three panels, from left to right the painting chronicles the passage of Africans from the building of civilization on the banks of the Nile River, to the ancient trading capital of Memphis, Lower Egypt, then – tracing the progress of the watery thoroughfare towards the Mediterranean – moves up through the Old World to the New, and on to the Americas and Memphis, Tennessee – a city in the US which experienced some of the worst examples of racial violence.
Amongst an intoxicating array of signs and iconography, taking the center place is the crescent yellow boat which Basquiat has identified with the word SICKLE. A direct appropriation from predynastic Egyptian rock art, it refers to the sickle-shaped boat used by the ancient Egyptians, as well as echoing the haunting image of the 'Brookes' slave ship that illustrates how enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas from early in the 19th century.
Also important compositionally, the sickle boat serves as a bridge to link the two African masks and Voodoo symbols in the left panel to the contemporary themes of racist subjugation in the right panel.
On the left panel, the two African masks refer to the the primitive beginnings of man and art
The sickle boat appears most predominantly in the central panel
The contemporary themes of racist subjugation in the right panel
Memphis is a city in Tennesee, as well as the ancient capital of the first nome of Lower Egypt
The current work (right) appeared as a reproduction in the 2016 Showtime TV series Billions
One of the most recognizable paintings by Basquiat, The Nile has been exhibited in numerous critically acclaimed retrospectives of the artist before entering into Garavani's private collection, including one organized by Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1992 and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2006.
The Nile has also penetrated into mainstream popular culture, appearing as a reproduction in the 2016 Showtime TV series Billions. In an interview with The Credits in 2018, the production designer Mike Shaw explained, given the protagonist’s character, they were looking for art that was bold and luxurious to match the super-rich hedge shark's blue-chip art collection, hence choosing Basquiat's monumental The Nile.