US$13m Basquiat's fresh-to-market 1982 masterpiece sold at Phillips leads Hong Kong Spring Sales

On 31 May, Phillips held the last evening sale of Hong Kong Spring Sales, which saw Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 stretcher-bar painting, Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari, become this season's highest-selling lot across all houses and categories at HK$98.73 million with fees included (US$12.7 million). 

The success came after the triumph achieved by Phillips earlier this month, when another fresh-to-market masterpiece by Basquiat from the same original collection, UNTITLED (ELMAR) (1982), sold for US$46.5 million and led the New York sales week. 

On the whole, Phillips' Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong sold 23 of the 24 on offer, yielding a sale total of HK$210 million (US$27 million) with a sell-through rate of HK$98%. 

Toward the end of the auction, auctioneer Jonathan Crockett (Chairman, Asia) gave us a sneak peek of the house's major offering next season: a rare nude oil-on-masonite painting by Sanyu, Reclining Nude, with Raised Knee II. From known information, the piece was painted in the 1950s to 1960s and measures 67 x 120 cm.

Auctioneer Jonathan Crockett (Chairman, Asia)

Sanyu's Reclining Nude, with Raised Knee II, will be the Phillips' star lot next season

Lot 10 | Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari, Acrylic and oil stick on canvas on wood supports
Executed in 1982
183.2 x 182.2 cm

  • Glenn O’ Brien, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
  • Annina Nosei Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
  • Francesco Pellizzi, New York (acquired from the above in 1983)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: HK$90,000,000 - 120,000,000 
Hammer Price: HK$83,000,000
Sold: HK$98,735,000 (around US$12.7 million)

Bidding for Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari opened at HK$65 million and attracted interest from three telephone bidders. After five bids, the auctioneer brought his gavel down at HK$83 million, a bid offered by Robert Manley (Worldwide Co-Head of Modern & Contemporary Art) for his client with paddle number 1029. 

Notably, the top lot of New York Spring Sales, Untitled (ELMAR), also went to a bidder represented by Manley, but whether or not they are the same buyer is yet to be known. 

The present work, inscribed with Glenn O'Brien on the reserve, was dedicated to the influential American author, who was among Basquiat's earliest advocates and one of the first to introduce him to television. 

In 1983, the late Italian anthropologist Francesco Pellizzi, an important collector of Basquiat's early career, acquired it directly from his friend, Annina Nosei, the New York gallerist who discovered Basquiat and gave him his first solo exhibition in the United States. The painting has since remained in his collection, only being loaned to museums for special exhibitions. 

Robert Manley won the lot for his client with paddlue number 1029

This stretch-bar painting is dedicated to Glenn O’Brien on the reverse

Italian anthropologist Francesco Pellizzi with the present painting

Pellizzi, who passed away last year, was the co-founder and editor of Res, Anthropology and Aesthetics, a journal published by the Peabody Musem at Harvard University and Chicago University Press. Beginning in the late 1960s, he collected artworks by American minimalists such as Carl Andre and Donald Judd but by the 1980s his interests shifted toward contemporary art in New York. 

An inspired collector, the anthropologist became drawn to paintings by Basquiat, which often address cultural history, and would later become friends with the artist as well as Andy Warhol and Francesco Clemente thanks to Nosei. 

Reflecting the quality of his collection, the three Basquiats offered by Phillips this season ultimately fetched a combined US$67 million across New York and Hong Kong.

  • Untitled (ELMAR) (1982) | US$46,479,000
  • Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer) (1981) | US$7,892,500 
  • Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari (1982) | (around US$12.7 million)

Francesco Clemente, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Pellizzi residence in New York in 1984 | Photo by Francesco Pellizzi

With its exposed stretcher bars fixed at the corners, Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari belongs to a celebrated group of paintings executed during Basquiat's meteoric rise in 1982.

As he rocketed to art world stardom, the young artist faced criticism which argued his fame and ties to SoHo galleries were causing his work to lose its edge. A rebel to the core, Basquiat decided to dismantle traditional canvas painting, instead crafting his own stretchers and frames out of a whole host of found materials on the street, such as carpet tacks, wooden beams, and slats. 

These "stretcher bar" canvases, as they have come to be known, have become some of the most iconic works of his career, with examples housed in major museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and The Menil Collection in Houston. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1980-1981 | A film still from Downtown 81, a 2000 American film written and produced by Glenn O'Brien | © New York Beat Films

Jean-Michel Basquiat | A Next Loin And/Or (1982) | Menil Collection, Houston

Jean-Michel Basquiat | A Panel of Experts (1982) | Montreal Museum of Art

As if a street-action art transposed onto canvas, Natives Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari is replete with billboard-style marks and iconographies that explore the themes of colonization, commercialization, and African American history.

Central to the composition are two figures: a Black man holding a wooden sign bearing the logo "ROYAL SALT INC©" and a heavily armed white man wearing a pith helmet of the kind routinely issued to European military personnel serving overseas in hot climates from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

Around the two men, Basquiat’s use of dollar signs in place of "S", from "JOLLY GOOD MONEY IN SAVAGES" to "GOD," "TUSK$," and "$KIN$", serves to ironise the exploitative ownership of both indigenous peoples and natural resources by colonial powers and Western capital.

The Black man holding a wooden sign bearing the logo "ROYAL SALT INC©"

The heavily armed white man wearing a pith helmet

The background is filled with explicit references to colonization and commercialism

Lot 9 | Banksy (b.1975) | The Leopard and Lamb, Acrylic on ply, in artist's frame
Executed in 2016
148 x 172 cm

  • Acquired directly from Pest Control Office by the present owner

This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Pest Control
Estimate: HK$18,000,000 - 28,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$30,000,000
Sold: HK$36,750,000 (around US$4.7 million)

The night's second-most expensive lot was anonymous street artist Banksy's The Leopard and Lamb (2016), which hammered above its high estimate for HK$30 million against an opening bid of HK$15 million after fierce bidding between at least three interested buyers. With fees, the work went for a final price of HK$36.75 million (around US$4.7 million), to the bidder represented by Danielle So (Head of Evening Sale and Specialist). 

Born in Bristol, UK, Banksy’s identity remains shrouded in mystery, enhancing the enigmatic appeal of his work. In 2018, the mysterious artist caused a sensation in the art world and dominated international headlines after destroying one of his most iconic works, Girl with Balloon, at auction just after the hammer came down.

Three years later, the shredded artwork, renamed Love Is In the Bin, returned to the same auction room and sold for £18.5 million (US$25.4 million) to an Asian buyer, setting the auction record for this enigmatic graffiti artist.

The present lot installed at Walled-Off Hotel

At the heart of Banksy’s practice lies a profound advocacy for peace. During the same period as the creation of the present lot, in 2016, Banksy was actively engaging in street art projects that addressed socio-political issues, notably around the refugee crisis in Europe.

As in many of his projects on the streets, The Leopard and Lamb expresses the hope of peace, capturing an ideal scene where adversaries coexist in harmony. The portrayal of a leopard lying peacefully beside a lamb invokes the prophetic imagery from Isaiah 11:6: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat." 

Notably, it was exhibited at Banksy’s renowned Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem, near the separation wall, which housed a museum commemorating the centennial of British control over Palestine, highlighting the prolonged period of turmoil and conflict that ensued. It is also where Banksy often exhibited his original artwork. 

Lot 12 | Yayoi Kusama (b.1929) | INFINITY NETS (ZGHEB), Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 2007
194 x 194 cm

  • Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000 
Hammer Price: HK$21,000,000
Sold: HK$25,860,000 (around US$3.3 million)

Recently under the limelight of the Asian art scene, Yayoi Kusama has had strong performance at auctions over the past few seasons. Riding on the momentum, at this sale Phillips Hong Kong presented a painting featuring her iconic motif, INFINITY NETS (ZGHEB) (2007), which became the third most expensive lot of the sale. 

Drawing interest from more than one bidder, the piece sold for HK$25.86 million (around US$3.3 million) to the bidder with paddle number 1025 on the phone with Yeonah Lim (Regional Representative, Korea).

The motif of the net, which evokes notions of infinity, interconnectedness, and dissolution of self, is the earliest pattern that Kusama has been engaged with since 1958. The practice started as the artist's struggle with her mental illness, especially hallucinations that violently threatened her psychological entity: "They began to cover the walls, the ceiling, and finally the whole universe. I was always standing at the center of the obsession, over the passionate accretion and repetition inside of me."

Essential to her healing journey, these net paintings, which envelop viewers within a sea of turbulent swirls, are among Kusama’s most beloved works by art critics and curators and her most sought-after series in the market. Her auction record, for instance, was set by an untitled milky white net painting, which sold for US$10.5 million at Phillips New York in May 2022. 

Yayoi Kusama | Untitled (1959) | Sold: US$10.5 million, Phillip New York, May 2022 (Auction record for the artist)

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 11 | Yayoi Kusama | Pumpkin, Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 2000
37.7 x 45.5 cm

  • Keio Department Store, Tokyo
  • Private Collection
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above)
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 6 October 2022, lot 532
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$13,000,000 - 20,000,000 
Hammer Price: HK$11,000,000
Sold: HK$13,760,000

Lot 23 | KAWS | PAY THE DEBT TO NATURE, Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 2010
213 x 305 cm

  • Galerie Perrotin, Paris
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$7,500,000 - 12,000,000 
Hammer Price: HK$4,700,000
Sold: HK$5,969,000

Lot 16 | Park Seo-Bo | Écriture No. 67-78-79, Pencil and oil on canvas
Executed in 1979
130 x 162.5 cm

  • White Cube, London
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$3,500,000 - 5,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$3,300,000
Sold: HK$4,191,000

Lot 1 | Teppei Takeda | Painting of Painting 026, Acrylic on paper mounted on wooden board (Auction record for the artist)
Executed in 2019
91 x 72.7 cm

  • Maho Kubota Gallery, Tokyo
  • Private Collection, Japan
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$200,000 - 300,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,450,000
Sold: HK$1,841,500

Auction Details:

Auction House: Phillips Hong Kong
Sale: Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Date: 31 May 2024
Number of Lots: 24
Sold: 23
Unsold: 1
Sale Rate: 96%
Sale Total: HK$