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A painting of a skull by Jean-Michel Basquiat broke records at Sotheby's last night. The work sold for more than $110 million. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, that is the most ever for an American artist's work at auction.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: With thick black lines, an open mouth, an explosion of blue, red and yellow, the skull seems to be shouting. Jean-Michel Basquiat was just 21 years old when he painted it. It wowed art lovers when Sotheby's first unveiled it two weeks ago. The auction house's pre-sale estimate was $60 million.
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UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: Seventy-nine million dollars.
BLAIR: It was shattered within minutes.
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UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: For $98 million.
BLAIR: With fees, the price tag rose to $110.5 million. The winning bidder was Japanese Internet mogul Yusaku Maezawa. This Basquiat painting hadn't been seen in public for decades. It was sold at auction in 1984 for just $19,000.
GREGOIRE BILLAULT: Which at that time was obviously a record for such a young artist. Don't forget that Jean-Michel at the time is 24 years old.
BLAIR: Sotheby's head of contemporary art, Gregoire Billault, says the work has been in a private collection ever since. Sotheby's was thrilled when it came to them.
BILLAULT: Because nobody knew who bought the painting at the time, there was no loan request either from museums or galleries. So for us to be able to offer this painting was like a discovery. That was a complete rediscovery for the market.
BLAIR: Billault says only two other contemporary artists have exceeded $100 million at auction - Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol, and now Jean-Michel Basquiat.
PAIGE POWELL: It didn't surprise me at all, and it's going to keep escalating.
BLAIR: Photographer Paige Powell was Basquiat's girlfriend in New York in the 1980s.
POWELL: His work is so provocative. It just - it gets to everybody on all different levels - politically, poetically.
BLAIR: Basquiat was born in Brooklyn. He never finished high school. Instead, he was consumed with art - Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, who became a friend and collaborator. Paige Powell says Basquiat would be thrilled at last night's sale.
POWELL: He was absolutely obsessed with being famous.
BLAIR: And for a time, he was. But in 1988, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose. He was 27 years old. Much has been written about the angst and chaos in Basquiat's paintings. He mixed graffiti with abstract symbols and body parts and scrawled words like fool and whitewashing on his work.
Basquiat was a voracious observer. In an interview for the 1986 British documentary series "State Of Art" (ph), he noted that modern art leaves a lot of people out.
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JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: Black people are never really portrayed realistically in - not - or - not even - I mean, not even portrayed in modern art enough.
BLAIR: For Gregoire Billault, it's important that the highest-selling American artist at auction is African-American.
BILLAULT: It's always difficult when you are a minority. And I think you grow as a group, as a country, as a minority when your biggest symbols are appreciated and enjoyed by the rest of the planet.
BLAIR: Collector Yusaku Maezawa also seems to understand the importance of the work he just bought. He's planning to build a museum for his collection in his hometown in Japan. Until then, he says he'll loan the Basquiat to institutions around the world.
In an Instagram post, he said he was struck with so much excitement over the work and wants to share that experience with as many people as possible. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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