BY ANNA LOUIE SUSSMAN
Seasoned art collectors know it’s usually wise to go into an auction with a set budget; otherwise one can get carried away by the adrenaline. It helps when that budget is about $100 million.
Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese e-commerce billionaire, hewed to what appears to be his annual $100 million high-profile spring auction season spend, with his purchase of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) at Thursday night’s Contemporary Art evening sale at Sotheby’s. The canvas was hammered down at $98 million after a dramatic 10-minute bidding war, coming to $110.4 million with the buyer’s premium. It marks the highest auction price ever for an American artist—unseating Andy Warhol, whose $105 million auction record was set by Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963) at Sotheby’s New York in November 2013—and the second-highest price for any contemporary work.
Maezawa purchased $98 million of art at last year’s spring auctions, in a spending binge that included a $57.3 million Basquiat, then a record for the artist.
Bidding began at $57 million, a sum that sounded a little cheeky at first, and drew murmurs from the crowd. The murmurs morphed into gasps as that figure, and with it Basquiat’s record, receded into history and the bidding soared. Sotheby’s specialist Yuki Terase, on the phone with Maezawa, used incongruously slight gestures—a delicate wiggle of a finger—to indicate she was ramping up the price by another million.
Sotheby’s had guaranteed the work for $60 million to the consignor, Lise Spiegel Wilks, and had also received an irrevocable bid on the work, meaning a buyer had placed a bid at an undisclosed amount and will share in the upside above that price. Auctioneer and chair of Sotheby’s Europe Oliver Barker called the estimate of $60 million “uncharted territory,” since it exceeded the previous record.
But Sotheby’s head of contemporary art Grégoire Billault said the team had anticipated strong demand, due to the quality of the work and the fact it had been off the market so long.
“We felt that yes, it was the price that it deserved,” said Billault.