NEW YORK • Joining the rarefied US$100 million (S$139 million)- plus club in a sales room punctuated by periodic gasps from the crowd, Jean-Michel Basquiat's powerful 1982 painting of a skull brought US$110.5 million at Sotheby's to become the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction. Only 10 other works have broken the US$100-million mark.
"He's now in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso," said dealer Jeffrey Deitch, an expert on Basquiat.
The sale of the painting, Untitled, made for a thrilling moment at Sotheby's post-war and contemporary auction, as at least four bidders on the phones and in the room sailed past the US$60-million level at which the powerful work - forged from oil stick and spray paint - had been guaranteed to sell by a third party.
Soon after the sustained applause had subsided, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa revealed himself to be the buyer through a post on his Instagram account.
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"I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece," he said in the post. "When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible."
It was Mr Maezawa, 41, the founder of Contemporary Art Foundation, who last year set the previous auction high for Basquiat, paying US$57.3 million for the artist's large 1982 painting of a horned devil at Christie's.
Mr Maezawa, who is also the founder of Japan's large online fashion mall, Zozotown, later told Sotheby's that he had acquired his latest Basquiat painting for a planned museum in his hometown of Chiba, Japan.
Whether one active collector makes a market remains to be seen. It will take another major Basquiat to test the sustainability of this US$100-million level.
In the meantime, the artist's vibrant painting of a face in the shape of a skull set several records on Thursday night: for a work by any American artist, for a work by a black artist and as the first work created since 1980 to make more than US$100 million.
The Brooklyn-born Basquiat went from graffiti artist to an art collector darling in the span of a mere seven years.
He died in 1988 at 27, of a drug overdose.
Last year, he became the highest-grossing American artist at auction, generating US$171.5 million from 80 works, according to Artprice, and his auction high has increased at least tenfold in the last 15 years.