Basquiat 1982 masterpiece sells for US$46.5m at Phillips, the highest price during this New York spring auction

While the global art market has cooled off, one artist seemingly remains as coveted as ever: Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

For this Spring Marquee Week season in New York, all three major auction houses – Sotheby's, Christie's, Phillips – have lined up works by Basquiat as star lots in their contemporary art sales. 

Kicking off the Basquiat auctions was Sotheby's, which sold an untitled 1984 canvas by Andy Warhol and Basquiat for US$19.4 million on 13 May and set an auction record for their collaboration series. 

A day later, its arch-rival, Christie's, presented a long-unseen 1982 stretcher-bar painting, The Italian Version of Popeye has no Pork in his Diet, with an on-request estimate of US$30 million. After a swift bidding war, the work went for US$32 million with fees. 

The highest-estimated and highest-selling one went to Phillips' offering: Untitled (ELMAR), created in 1982 and came from the original collection of Italian anthropologist Francesco Pellizzi. With significant interest, the monumental work garnered US$46.5 million with fees against an estimate of US$40 million, and it is likely to become this season's most expensive lot sold. 


Phillips New York | Modern & Contemporary Evening Sale | 14 May 2024


Lot 5 | Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | Untitled (ELMAR), Acrylic, oilstick, spray paint and Xerox collage on canvas
Executed in 1982
172.7 x 236.5 cm
Provenance:

  • Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
  • Elaine Dannheisser (acquired from the above)
  • Francesco Pellizzi, New York (acquired from the above via Annina Nosei Gallery in 1984)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$40,000,000 - 60,000,000
Hammer Price: US$40,200,000
Sold: US$46,479,000 


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. Since purchased in 1984, the present work has remained in his collection, never before seen in the market. 

On an opening bid of US$28 million, the piece elicited a bidding war between three telephone bidders, respectively on the phone with Robert Manley (Worldwide Co-Head of Modern & Contemporary Art), Miety Heiden (Head of Private Sales), and Takako Nagasawa (Senior International Specialist). 

After several minutes of back and forth, Manley won the lot for his client, with paddle number 1058, with a bid of US$40.2 million. With fees, the piece went for US$46.5 million. ​​​


Robert Manley won the lot for his client with paddle number 1058


Jean-Michel Basquiat


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


It is universally acknowledged that 1982 was the most significant year in Basquiat's tragically short yet enduringly prolific career – it marked the 21-year-old artist's definitive entrance into the international art world: he had his first US solo exhibition at Annina Nosei Gallery in New York, and became the youngest artist ever to be invited to participate in the landmark Documenta VII exhibition in Germany. 

That year, he also returned to Italy, where he had his first-ever one-man show two years earlier, to create eight vast paintings for another show. It was during this stay that he painted several of his most respected works known as the Modena paintings, including the US$85 million Untitled (Devil) sold by Japanese Yusaku Maezawa at Phillips New York in 2022.


Basquiat emerged from street graffiti into the mainstream New York art scene at the mere age of 21


Untitled (1982) was sold by Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa to an Asian collector for US$85 million at Phillips in 2022


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. 


Lot 6 | Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), Acrylic, oilstick and Xerox collage on canvas
Executed in 1981
127.3 x 110.5 cm
Provenance:

  • Galleria Mazzoli, Modena
  • Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
  • Francesco Pellizzi, New York (acquired from the above in 1983)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: US$6,500,000 - 8,500,000
Hammer Price: US$6,500,000
Sold: US$7,892,500


A smaller piece from the same collection, Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer) (1981), was hammered for US$6.5 million and sold for US$7.8 million with fees. 

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. 


Christie's New York | 21st Century Evening Sale | 14 May 2024



Lot 36 A | Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | The Italian Version of Popeye has no Pork in his Diet, Acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on canvas mounted on tied wood supports
Executed in 1982
152.4 x 152.4 cm
Provenance:

  • Larry Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1982
  • Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, 1983
  • Annina Nosei Gallery, New York
  • Private collection, New York
  • Lang & O'Hara Gallery, New York, 1987
  • Private collection, New York, 1987
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2007

Estimate on request (In excess of US$30 million)
Hammer Price: US$27,500,000
Sold: US$32,035,000

 

Also executed in 1982, The Italian Version of Popeye has no Pork in his Diet being offered at Christie's belongs to a celebrated group of works stretched over jutting corner supports and exposed stretcher bars. Basquiat and his assistant at the time set about 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. 

Bidding for the lot opened at US$24 million and attracted interest from three bidders. It reached a hammer price of US$27.5 million after a gentleman in the room bellowed "Hold on!" before ducking out while on the phone. With fees, the work went for US$32 million to a bidder with 7003 represented by Nick Cinque (Senior Specialist, Post-War & Contemporary Art, Americas).  


Nick Cinque won the lot for his client with paddle number 7003


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


Jean-Michel Basquiat | LNAPRK (1982) | Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Boxing was one of the first sports where Black sportsmen prevailed. For Basquiat, a legendary champion such as Sugar Ray Robinson represented the striking dichotomy of being a Black man in America.

Despite being regarded as the greatest boxer of all time, and one of the most famous African Americans of his generation, Robinson would have suffered the indignity of not being allowed into venues due to segregation that was still widespread in America during his reign. 

And it was through mark-making that Basquiat introduced his personal heroes into the canon of American art and introspected his own experiences in the Black community. His famous © copyright symbol, for instance, was to assert his ownership as an artist, something that was denied to generations of Black artists previously. 

While the identities of the present work's two main figures could not be deciphered, as with many of his works, the composition is filled with text references to boxing: "BOXEO" on the right lower edge is Spanish for "boxing"; the "FOUR BIG" along the upper edge could be the four governing bodies of world boxing (the WBA, WBC, IBF, and the WBO); "BUM EAR" describes one of the physical effects of constantly being hit around the head. 


"BOXEO" on the right lower edge is Spanish for "boxing"


The "FOUR BIG" written along the upper edge could be a reference to the four governing bodies of world boxing


"BUM EAR" on the lower left could describe one of the physical effects of constantly being hit around the head


(Left) Illustration from Gray’s Anatomy (1974); (Right) Present lot


Interestingly, although sometimes misunderstood as a disgruntled dropout who randomly spray-painted pithy texts all over New York City, Basquiat was a voracious reader, something which his parents encouraged. 

As a child he was once struck by a car while playing softball in the street, to keep him occupied while he was laid up in hospital, his mother gave him a copy of the classic medical reference book, Gray's Anatomy

What at first might seem an odd choice to give an eight-year-old child, in turn, played to his eager desire for knowledge and fueled his artistic endeavours as his mother knew that all the great painters, including Michelangelo, had studied anatomy. And anatomical depictions would go on to play a central role in the artist's vocabulary, as seen on the right-hand side of the present canvas.


Lot 38 A | Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | Chicken Wings Three, Acrylic and Xerox collage on metal
Executed in 1983
90.17 x 90.17 cm
Provenance:

  • Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
  • Edward Totah Gallery, London
  • Private Collection, Switzerland
  • Galleria Tornabuoni, Milan
  • Private Collection, Milan
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$2,000,000 - 3,000,000
Hammer Price: US$1,950,000
Sold: US$2,409,500


Another Basquiat painting on offer at Christie's was Chicken Wings Three, which hammered for US$1.95 million against an opening bid of US$1.8 million, selling for a final price with fees of US$2.4 million to a bidder on the phone with Julian Ehrlich (Head of Sale, Post-War to Present, Post-War & Contemporary Art, Americas), with paddle number 2174. 

Executed in 1983, Chicken Wings Three is another example of Basquiat incorporating found materials in his work, this time using metal as a surface. Beneath broad sweeps of red acrylic paints hides a Xerox collage covered with the artist's signature mark-making. 

Basquiat forayed into the Xerox medium as early as 1979, when he and his artist friend Jennifer Stein created a series of small and colorful collages that incorporate paint splatters, scrawled text, and found detritus – from candy labels to newspaper clipping – which they photocopied, mounted and sold as art postcards on the streets of New York. 

By 1983, collage would become a defining element of his practice, that he began to extensively use the photocopier as a tool to create paintings. The process of photocopying became so integral to his practice that he eventually invested in his own color Xerox machine for his studio.


Auction Details:

Auction House: Phillips New York
Sale: Modern & Contemporary Evening Sale
Date: 14 May 2024
Number of Lots: 28
Sold: 25
Unsold: 28
Sale Rate: 89%
Sale Total: US$86,297,799

Auction House: Christie's New York
Sale: 21st Century Evening Sale
Date: 14 May 2024
Number of Lots: 32
Sold: 30
Unsold: 2 
Sale Rate: 93%
Sale Total: US$80,258,980