Trio of Basquiat paintings from his golden years could fetch US$86.5m combined at Phillips this May

This May, Phillips will offer three major paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat that are estimated to bring to US$86.5 million total during its spring sales in New York and Hong Kong.

All three works, made between the artist's acclaimed years of 1981 and 1982, come from the collection of the late Italian anthropologist Francesco Pellizzi and were acquired in the early 1980s from Annina Nosei, his gallerist friend who was Basquiat's first dealer. 

The most valuable of the trio is Untitled (ELMAR), which is expected to fetch between US$40 and 60 million on 14 May in New York, while the one being sold in Hong Kong, Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari, carries an estimate between HK$90 and 120 million (US$12 - 18 million).

Ahead of the sales, the works will be on view in Taipei, New York, and Hong Kong. 

New York Evening Sale | 14 May

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | Untitled (ELMAR)
Executed in 1982
172.2 x 236.5 cm
Estimate: US$40,000,000 - 60,000,000

Pellizzi, who passed away last year, was the co-founder and editor of the journal Res, Anthropology and Aesthetics, published by the Peabody Musem at Harvard University and Chicago University Press. 

Beginning in the late 1960s, the anthropologist collected artworks by American minimalists such as Carl Andre and Donald Judd, but by the 1980s, his interests shifted to contemporary artists in New York, including Andy Warhol and Basquiat, whom he had direct connections with.  

After acquiring the present group of Basquiat paintings in the 1980s, he kept them in his collection ever since and the May sales will mark the first time they are offered publicly. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol at the Pellizzi (left) residence in New York in 1984

Leading the group of work is Untitled (ELMAR), created in 1982 and acquired by the Pellizzi Family just two years later. At nearly 240 cm wide, the monumental work is a cornerstone of Basquiat's golden year, during which he transitioned from street art to gallery success. 

As is typical in Basquiat's art, Untitled (ELMAR) is rich in iconography and reflects the artist's exploration of dichotomies. 

There are two key figures on either side of the painting, both adorned with a primitive crown-of-thorn which doubles as a halo. On the left, a birdlike "fallen angel" figure hovers above a royal blue sea of scribbled waves and the text "ELMAR", which, according to Phillips, suggests a modern-day Icarus on the verge of descent. 

To the right, a radiant archer with raised arms, painted red against a bright yellow background, releases two arrows in Icarus' direction, which could be viewed as the artist's self-referential imagery. 

The "fallen angel" figure on the left

The radiant archer on the right

Untitled (ELMAR) was included in an exhibition dedicated to the Collection of Francesco Pellizzi at the Hofstra Museum in New York in 1989, later presented at Gagosian Los Angeles as part of a memorial exhibition in 1998, marking the 10th anniversary of Basquiat’s death. It was notably featured on the cover of the accompanying catalog.

More recently, the work was prominently exhibited in the artist’s historical 2018 retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Pellizzi residence in New York

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | Untitled (Portrait of a Famous Ballplayer)
Executed in 1981
127.3 x 110.5 cm
Estimate: US$6,500,000 - 8,500,000

Another lot offered at the New York sale will be Untitled (Portrait of a Famous Ballplayer) (1981), which carries an estimate between US$6.5 and 8.5 million. 

Depicting a Black central figure donning a baseball uniform, the painting explores complex issues of race inclusion and exclusion within American culture through the "all-American" sport.

Below the figure is the phrase "FAMOUS NEGRO ATHLETES", with "NEGRO ATHLETES" clearly crossed out with a horizontal line of thick black spray. It alludes to the Negro league in the U.S., the well-documented struggles of black players integrating into mainstream sports, and hinted at the parallel experiences Basquiat had as a Black artist in a predominantly white art world.

The work was exhibited at Nosei's Jean-Michel Basquiat Memorial Exhibition in December 1988, just a few months after the artist's untimely death and coinciding with what would have been his 28th birthday. 

Hong Kong Evening Sale | 31 May

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari
Executed in 1982
183.2 x 182.2 cm
Estimate: HK$90,000,000 - 120,000,000 (US$12 - 18 million)

Also reflecting African-American history, the auction house's third offering, Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari (1982), takes on such significant subjects as slavery and empire and could be viewed as Basquiat's explicit critiques of white imperialism. 

Here, a Black figure dominates the canvas with its arms raised, confronting a poacher dressed in clothing from a colonial era. The background is filled with explicit references to colonization, commercialism, the slave trade, and to the industries and commodities that were reliant upon it, such as salt and tusk. 

Untitled (1982) was sold by Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa to an Asian collector at Phillips in 2022

Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari will be a highlight at Phillips' Hong Kong evening sale on 31 May and is expected to fetch around HK$90 million (US$12 million). 

Notably, Asian collectors' interest in Western works has surged over the past decade, with one of the most coveted artists being Basquiat. 

In 2022, Phillips sold Untitled (1982) from the collection of Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa for US$85 million to an Asian collector; a year earlier, Basquiat's Warrior (1982) set an auction record for the most expensive Western artwork in Asia at HK$320 million (HK$41.7 million) at Christie's Hong Kong.

Global Exhibition Details

Taipei | Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari

  • Date: 4 - 5 May
  • Location:  |BELLAVITA 
  • Address: No.28 Songren Rd, Xinyi District, Taipei City, Taiwan 110

New York | Untitled (ELMAR) and Untitled (Portrait of a Famous Ballplayer)

  • Date: 4 - 14 May
  • Location: 432 Park Avenue

Hong Kong | Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari

  • Date: 22 - 31 May
  • Location: G/F, WKCDA Tower, West Kowloon Cultural District, No. 8 Austin Road, West Kowloon