An untitled Jean-Michel Basquiat painting of a giant skull from 1982 for a jaw-dropping $110.5 million, the most ever paid at auction for a work by an American artist. The buyer was the Japanese retail tycoon Yusaku Maezawa, who declared himself “a lucky man”
Talk of paintings with nine-figure price tags can make even veteran art-world denizens queasy. (Fact: $110.5 million would have covered almost exactly nine months of the NEA’s 2016 budget.) But I ease that queasy feeling by reminding myself that, if that money hadn’t been tendered for an artwork, it would have been traded for stocks or bonds or gold or a yacht, as larger sums are traded all the time. (That will continue until international tax policy changes, but I’ll spare you the details.)
Here’s a thought: last night’s wild auction result may get that Basquiat painting in front of a few people who had never heard of the artist before. Some kids, perhaps even some adults, might be picking up color pencils or crayons with new purpose, inspired by that painting, drawing wild skulls, and improvising from there. Here’s another thought: Maezawa told Sotheby’s the painting will eventually be housed in a museum based in his hometown of Chiba, Japan, so at least it stands a chance to continue to inspire.
—Andrew Russeth, Co-Executive Editor