Basquiat’s Skull Painting and 8-Bit NFT CryptoPunks Avatars Made Half of Christie’s New York US$210m Evening Sale

Christie’s New York sets the bar high for New York marquee auction week. Earlier tonight, the 21st Century Evening Sale raked in a total of US$210m and was spearheaded by the highest-grossing American artist Basquiat’s skull painting, which realized US$93m to become the artist’s second highest auction record.

Meanwhile, the bundle of nine CryptoPunks was the first-ever NFT-based digital artwork going under the hammer at a New York evening sale, and achieved US$16.9m to secure second place in the 39-lot sale. (Prior to the sale, the auction house also announced its acceptance of Ether cryptocurrency for this lot). The top two lots alone accounted for half of the evening's total and the sell-through rate tonight was 95%, with only two lots unsold.


Basquiat’s In This Case was crowned as the top lot of the sale

The hybrid sale format tonight was sharpened by not just the Graff jewelry pieces worn by the New York specialists, but also the partnership with Microsoft to fill the saleroom with a virtual audience, and the 360-degree camera feed that allowed the bidders at home to be a part of the immersive experience. 

The 360-degree livestream and Microsoft’s Virtual Skybox elevated audience’s experience 

Lot 8 | Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), In This Case

Painted in 1983
Acrylic and oilstick on canvas

  • Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich
  • Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris
  • Private collection, Europe
  • Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, November 12, 2002, lot 26
  • Gagosian Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2007

Dimensions: 197.8 x 187.3 cm
Estimate on request (expected to fetch in excess of US$50m)
Price hammer: US$81,000,000
Price realized: US$93,105,000


The bid opened at US$40m and immediately elicited quite an intense bidding war among the specialists, mainly led by those in the New York saleroom. The bidding climbed to US$58m in US$2m and US$3m increments in the first few minutes, before Hong Kong’s Francis Belin (President of Christie’s Asia Pacific) joined in with his US$60m for his phone bidder. 

Though the second half of the bidding war was back to New York, mainly among Ana Maria Celis (Senior Vice President of Post-War & Contemporary Art), Maria Los (Deputy Chairman of Client Advisory), and Christine Layng Aschwald (Vice President of Client Advisory). The lot was eventually sold to Celis’s client with the paddle number 1789, for US$93.1m, which placed the painting as the artist’s second most valuable work publicly sold at auction.

His record was set in 2017 by another painting of a skull - one of his recurring themes, when Japanese billionaire fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa bought it for US$110.5m at Sotheby’s New York.

Celis from the New York phone banks won the present lot for her client for US$93.1m

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who acquired the record-breaking painting by Basquiat for US$110.5m, once revealed his plan to take the phenomenal work to the Moon as the first-ever lunar tourist


The present 1983 canvas, standing nearly two meters tall, last went on the auction block in a 2002 Sotheby’s sale for a little less than US$1m and had changed hands privately after. The consignor tonight was said to be Giancarlo Giammetti, the former chairman of Italian fashion house Valentino, and it was expected to go for US$50m.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), the highest-grossing American artist


The iconic imagery of Basquiat’s skull harkens back to the artist’s root as a subversive graffiti artist, before he rose to stardom in the 1980s. It went back to when the artist was six, when he got into a car accident and was hospitalized. His mother bought him a copy of "Gray’s Anatomy," a medical textbook. The illustrations in the book left a lasting influence on the artist ever since and the motif of skull is among some of his most sought-after works in the market. 

Lot 11 | Larva Labs (Est. 2005), 9 Cryptopunks: 2, 532, 58, 30, 635, 602, 768, 603 and 757

Non-fungible tokens
Dimensions: 24 x 24 pixels each
Minted on June 23, 2017
Estimate: US$7,000,000 - 9,000,000
Hammer price: US$14,500,000
Price realized: US$16,962,500


Auctioneer Gemma Sudlow, also the house’s Head of Private & Iconic Collections, opened the bidding of the pixelated NFT work at US$5m and the New York specialists began bidding for their clients on the phone. After six bids or so, an online bidder from Canada chimed in and sailed the bid past its high estimate to US$9.5m. The hammer was at last, brought down at US$14.5m - the winning bid placed by Alex Marshall (Vice President of Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art), on behalf of his client with the paddle number 1930.

Marshall from the New York saleroom won the present lot for his client 


NFT, or non-fungible token, is the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrency. From a secondary art market perspective, transaction records are permanently secured in a time-stamped and immutable blockchain, making them impossible to alter. It verifies the authenticity and provenance, as well as the rightful ownership of an artwork. 

Beeple’s collage, titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days, was sold for a record-breaking US$69.3m this March at Christie’s, and a Mad Dog Jones’ multi-generational NFT art, REPLICATOR, for US$4.1m at Phillips last month.

Compared to the talk-of-town lots of late, the collection of 24 by 24, 8-bit-style pixel art images definitely stands on the simplistic end of the spectrum, though each Punk has its own page, detailing its features, attributes that make them unique from one another, and transaction history - pretty much as close to NFT’s history as it gets to be regarded as the pioneer of today’s cryptoart movement.

Each Punk has a unique combination of randomly generated features


CryptoPunks’ existence goes way before the whole NFT bonanza came into the picture. Though the pixelated characters were initially given out for free, they now claim the top spot on OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace worldwide.

Started as a casual experiment back in 2017, the New York-based software company Larva Labs, co-founded by technologists Matt Hall and John Watkinson, created a pixel-art character generator that randomly generated a total of 10,000 pixelated Punks among a mix of characteristics. 

Once minted, 9,000 of the 8-bit-style pixel characters, which could have been used for a smartphone app or game, were offered for free and could be claimed by anyone with an ETH wallet. The remaining 1,000 were kept by Hall and Watkinson, “just in case it becomes a thing,” as Hall put it in an interview. 

Each Punk has its own page, detailing its features, attributes that make them unique from one another, and transaction history - pretty much as close to NFT’s history as it gets to be regarded as the pioneer of today’s cryptoart movement.

Three of the CryptoPunks characters offered in the sale, numbers 30, 635, and 602

Similar Punks with subtle differences 

CryptoPunks characters are inspired by the British punk rock culture of the 1970s and 1980s


There are 6,039 male Punks, 3,840 female Punks. While no two Punks are exactly the same, some of them share similar attributes like rosy cheeks, buck teeth, muttonchops, topped with different combinations of accessories, such as shades, earrings, hoodies, bandanas, and caps. Inspired by the punk scene in 1970s-era London, quite a number of Punks possess stylistic nods like mohawk hairstyle and choker.

Each Punk in the series is given an edition number and the set of nine Punks offered in the sale all came from the first 1,000 Punks generated, including a female Punk with wild hair (#2) and a bandana and shades wearing alien Punk (#635), the only alien with a sub-1,000 series number. 

Lot 14 | Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Untitled (Soap)

Painted in 1983-1984
Acrylic, oilstick, metallic paint and Xerox collage on canvas
Dimensions: 167.6 x 152.4 cm
Estimate: US$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer price: US$11,200,000
Price realized: US$13,184,000


Another eight-figure work by Basquiat captured the third place of the sale. Painted between 1983 and 1984, Untitled (Soap) brought in US$13.2m after fees and was acquired by a specialist in Hong Kong, meaning that the painting is likely to be going into an Asian collection.

On that note, Christie’s Hong Kong 20th and 21st Century Art Evening Sale at the end of this month will see the appearance of another Basquiat painting created in 1982, which carries a presale estimate of HK$140m to 170m (US$18m - 22m), in the hopes of riding the crest. 

Auction Details:

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: 21st Century Evening Sale
Lots offered: 39
Sold: 37    
Unsold: 2
Sale by rate: 94.9%
Sale total: US$210,471,500