Japanese billionaire pays US$110.5m for Basquiat

Founder of Japanese online fashion mall Zozotown Yusaku Maezawa (above) bought Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 skull painting for US$110.5 million (S$152.6 million).
Founder of Japanese online fashion mall Zozotown Yusaku Maezawa (above) bought Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 skull painting for US$110.5 million (S$152.6 million).PHOTO: NYTIMES

TOKYO • As Sotheby's contemporary art auction heated up in New York last week, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa sat on the floor of his living room in Tokyo, streaming the auction live on his laptop and relaying bids for Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 skull painting on his iPhone to a Sotheby's specialist.

After the price sailed past the US$60-million (S$83 million) guaranteed minimum, Mr Maezawa - who had not gone into the sale with his own limit in mind - felt that the bidding reinforced the work's enormous value.

"I decided to go for it," he said in an interview at his home.

As he was bidding, Basquiat's sister Jeanine was in New Jersey, hoping the auction would turn out well. When she heard that Mr Maezawa had paid US$110.5 million - the record price for a US artist at auction - she called her older sister, Lisane, in California.

"There wasn't a lot to say," Lisane said. "We were speechless."

If members of the family are keepers of the Basquiat flame, Mr Maezawa has now ensured it will continue burning, at least in the near future - in no small part because he posted about his purchase on Instagram and Twitter.

Founder of Japanese online fashion mall Zozotown Yusaku Maezawa bought Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 skull painting (above) for US$110.5 million (S$152.6 million).
Founder of Japanese online fashion mall Zozotown Yusaku Maezawa bought Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 skull painting (above) for US$110.5 million (S$152.6 million). PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

"Vast numbers of people are aware of Jean-Michel Basquiat all over the world," said dealer Jeffrey Deitch, a long-time Basquiat expert. "And that is only because of the immense price."

Whether the sale recalibrates the market for the New York-born artist, who died in 1998 of a heroin overdose at 27, remains to be seen.

While collectors are likely to consign their works by him in an effort to ride this wave, few top paintings are expected to come up for sale.

Still, most agree that the Basquiat sale has cemented his place in the revenue pantheon with Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, forcing major museums to acknowledge that, by not having the artist in their collections, they passed over a crucial figure in art history.

Mr Maezawa plans to open a museum to showcase his collection in his home town of Chiba. "I want to show beautiful things and share them with everyone," he said, adding that he plans to lend pieces to museums around the world.

Given Basquiat's short career, there are simply not a lot of great Basquiats out there.

"You're talking about a handful of masterpieces, which are distributed among a few collectors who are not sellers," said art dealer Brett Gorvy, a former Christie's chairman.

Even the Basquiat estate does not have many leading pieces left.

"It's humbling and satisfying to see this happen 30 years after he died," Lisane said.

The sisters had never seen this particular painting before, so Sotheby's invited them to New York to view it in advance. Mr Maezawa, too, got a private pre-sale viewing.

While he "didn't expect the price to go that high", Mr Maezawa said, his love of Basquiat runs deep - he paid the previous high price (US$57.3 million) for the artist last year.

He saw that others felt the same, including one other buyer willing to go the distance (later revealed to be casino magnate Frank J. Fertitta III), as the two wound up in a bidding war.

Mr Maezawa started collecting about 10 years ago. The apartment he rents in Tokyo is testament to his passion for art - there is Richard Prince's Runaway Nurse in the stairwell, while a Roy Lichtenstein work is in the dining room.

Mr Maezawa said he is driven entirely by his love of art. "I just follow my instinct," he said. "When I think it's good, I buy it."

Having forgone college to form an indie rock band where he was the drummer, he started his company in 1998, now the large Japanese online fashion mall, Zozotown.

His net worth of about US$3.5 billion makes him the 14th richest person in Japan.

Given a culture in Japan in which people are typically reluctant to flaunt their wealth - buyers at last year's Tokyo Art Fair said they did not even want their wives to know about their purchases - he is considered somewhat of a renegade.

He posts photos of his artworks, his private jet and watches by Patek Philippe and Richard Mille.

He is also friendly with celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio and attended the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala with his girlfriend, model Saeko Dokyu.

Asked whether he aims to buy another major Basquiat, he said with a puckish smile: "Don't you think two are enough?"


Will seller pocket all the money?

NEW YORK • Sold for US$110.5 million (S$152.6 million) - a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. But will seller Lise Wilks get to keep all of that?

Her late parents bought the work for US$19,000 three decades ago.

Collectors can face steep taxes on successful investments.

There is the maximum 28 per cent federal capital gains rate for collectibles and a 3.8 per cent additional levy on investment income is applied for top earners.

Live in New York City? That is another 12 per cent.

Figuring Ms Wilks' exact tax bill, or cost basis, is impossible without knowing whether the piece was a gift or passed to her through her parents' estate, said Ms Laura Peebles, a senior fellow at Bloomberg BNA.

One way to determine the cost basis is to use the value of the work on the date of a parent's death, assuming it was included in that parent's taxable estate, she added.

Ms Wilks' parents, Jerry and Emily Spiegel, both died in 2009. The auction record for Basquiat at the time was US$13.5 million.

While Sotheby's achieved the US$110.5 million Basquiat record, the result included its commission of US$12.5 million on top of the US$98 million hammer price.

Taking the work's US$13.5 million value as an assumed cost basis, Ms Wilks' gain would be about US$85 million. Her estimated federal tax: US$27 million. Add about 12 per cent for New York City and state tax and that is another US$10 million.

The net result is that she might get only US$48 million.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline 'Japanese billionaire pays US$110.5m for Basquiat'. Print Edition | Subscribe