The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.

What on earth is happening to the Basquiat market?

Annual auction sales of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat plummeted 50 percent in 2022 compared to a record high $439.6 million in 2021, when the artist was second only to Pablo Picasso in terms of auction revenue, according to Artnet Price Database.

All told, the 51 Basquiat lots offered last year generated $220 million, led by a 1982 untitled canvas of a devil that fetched $85 million at Phillips in May. It was sold by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who bought it for $57 million in 2016, the highest price at the time. Its resale didn’t generate similar fireworks and, in purely financial terms, Maezawa’s return on investment fell short of what it would have been had he put his money in the S&P 500 index during the same period. (The intangible benefits of that investment are another story, as it catapulted the little-known e-commerce retailer to become a sensation in the art world and beyond.)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1982).  Image courtesy Phillips.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1982). Image courtesy Phillips.

The newly muted performance of Basquiat’s market was enough to drop him from second to seventh place among the top artists at auction. (Leading the pack is Andy Warhol at $589 million total, followed by Claude Monet at $539 million, and Picasso at $516 million, according to Artnet Price Database.)

The turn in Basquiat’s performance is surprising because his star has in fact never shone brighter in popular culture. This year, the artist’s two sisters staged “King Pleasure,” a sprawling exhibition of Basquiat art and ephemera in Chelsea, where attendance has reached 200,000 since it opened in April, according to the organizers. The exhibition is going to Los Angeles in 2023, although specific dates have not been announced. In the meantime, a new theatrical production based on the Neo-Expressionist artist’s collaboration with Warhol is drawing crowds on Broadway. Global demand for Basquiat memorabilia has soared to unprecedented levels.

His trophies remain in high demand as well as in connoisseur-courting museum shows. Next June, the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, will host a show of Basquiat’s large-scale paintings created in Modena, Italy, in 1982, the most coveted year of art production during the artist’s meteoric career.

Those deeply involved in the Basquiat market insist that the decline is a matter of supply, not demand.

“The market for Basquiat is very solid,” said Alberto Mugrabi, whose family collects and trades works by the artist. “Everyone thinks they have a $200 million painting. People don’t want to sell.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Photo by Rose Hartman/Getty Images.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo by Rose Hartman/Getty Images.

Asia accounted for a significant amount of buying in recent years and demand there remains healthy, according to Hong Kong-based art adviser Yuki Terasewho had sold many pricey Basquiats during her tenure at Sotheby’s (including the $110.5 million one to Maezawa in 2017).

She agreed that the number of available paintings was to blame for the lowered performance. “I feel recently the supply has tightened, especially of quality works,” Terase said. “People are willing to pay a premium on great pieces (as for any other blue chip names) but the owners of these works are not actively pursuing to sell right now. I think the auction sales being down is merely the lack of sellers.”

The difference in supply is particularly glaring at the top. In 2021, eight paintings by Basquiat sold for more than $20 million at auction (the top result was $93.1 million). By contrast, just two paintings surpassed that mark in 2022.

“The market is very volatile and uncertain,” said Terase. “Those who can hang onto the works, would want to wait and see, unless attractive guarantees and packages are offered that they cannot resist.”

A Christie's employee with Jean-Michel Basquiat's Il Duce (1982).  Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

A Christie’s employee with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Duce (1982). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

Basquiat’s market is more nuanced beneath the headline-grabbing lots. The Duce, not the most attractive Basquiat painting, fetched $14.9 million at Christie’s in Shanghai in spring, roughly half the estimate it had in 2017 (when it failed to sell, and Christie’s, having guaranteed the work, got stuck with it for the next five years) .

On the other hand, it’s one of the “deepest markets ever,” according to Gregoire Billault, Sotheby’s chairman of contemporary art.

He pointed out that during a single week in November, at least $50 million worth of art by Basquiat was sold at auction in New York. (It was $68.1 million, to be precise.)

“How many artists can say that?” Billault said. “Was there anything super special or completely fresh? No.”

Las Vegas billionaire Lorenzo Fertitta parted with a fiery work, Sugar Ray Robinson, at Christie’s on Nov. 17. It fetched $32.7 million, including fees. Fertitta acquired the 1982 work for $24 million in 2016 from billionaire jeweler Laurence Graff, who paid $7.3 million for it at auction in 2007.

Unsurprisingly, outsize auction results are usually driven by the quality of works that come to the market.

“If there’s an A+ painting, the market looks like it’s going crazy,” Billault said. “If it’s just B work, it doesn’t look as good.”

Warhol is a case in point. The artist’s market has languished for years after being so hot it was considered a proxy for the entire contemporary-art category.

Then Christie’s won Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) from the estate of Doris and Thomas Ammann. It fetched $195 million in Maycatapulting the artist to the top of the Artnet Price Database.

Another example? Annual auction sales by Georges Seurat shot up to $157 million in 2022 (with just nine works sold) from about $22 million in 2021 (with only five works sold) thanks to a single painting: Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Small version) (1888) from the Paul Allen Collection that fetched $149.2 million.

“Is the Seurat market amazing?” Billault said. “No. There was just one amazing Seurat.”

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