Two paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat fetched a combined $144 million this week, heralding a return to normalcy for some of the world's wealthiest art collectors.
The 1983 painting "In This Case" sold at Christie's for $93.1 million on Wednesday, becoming the second-most expensive Basquiat work ever to appear at auction, before the painter's confrontational "Versus Medici" fetched $50.82 million at rival house Sotheby's.Soaring prices for the two works -- both of which exceeded pre-sale estimates -- were in keeping with a general mood of optimism at New York's spring auction series. Covid-19 restrictions mean that bidding has taken place virtually or over the phone, but that has not stopped a host of big-ticket sales in recent days.
At Sotheby's, one of Claude Monet's famous Water Lilies paintings, "Le Bassin aux Nymphéas" sold for $70.4 million, while the American painter Cy Twombly's "Untitled (Rome)" brought in $41.6 million. Christie's, meanwhile, saw the latest multimillion-dollar sale for works of digital art, with a series of NFTs -- or non-fungible tokens -- by art collective Larva Labs fetching $16.9 million.
Tens of millions more dollars are expected to change hands before the season's big auctions conclude, with masterpieces by Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Joan Miro and Roy Lichtenstein among those still to go under the hammer. Pablo Picasso's "Femme Assise Près d'une Fenêtre," a painting of his muse Marie-Therese, carries of a top estimate at $55 million, while Vincent van Gogh's "Le pont de Trinquetaille" is expected to sell for up to $35 million.
But it is Basquiat's "In This Case," one of the artist's sought-after "skull" paintings, that will likely remain the spring season's biggest sale. The work, which previously belonged to former Valentino chairman Giancarlo Giammetti, was responsible for nearly half the $210 million generated at Christie's 21st century evening sale.
Other available paintings by Basquiat, who died in 1988, included "Untitled (Soap)," which features several of his distinctively colorful and mysterious human figures. Smaller works on paper, such as "Untitled (Black)" and "Untitled (Everybody's 2 Cents)," will also go under the hammer in the coming days.
An industry adapting
As the art market has grappled with the impact of lockdowns around the world, collectors have been increasingly forced online. Auction houses, in turn, have adapted their business models to account for the absence of in-person viewings and physical sales.
Christie's found creative ways to attract online bidders during New York's spring sales, partnering with Microsoft Teams to produce "virtual skybox" -- a screen that superimposed bidders' faces onto rows of white chairs. The auction house also set up a 360-degree livestream in an attempt to recreate the excitement of a live sale. Other auctions were streamed via social media platforms including Facebook and Chinese messaging platform WeChat.
This season's auctions have also seen an increased focus on cryptocurrencies and NFTs -- blockchain-backed "tokens" that allow collectors to prove ownership of digital artworks. Sotheby's announced that it would accept Bitcoin and Ethereum payments for Banksy's "Love Is in the Air," which sold for $12.9 million Wednesday, while Christie's also welcomed Ethereum payments for the aforementioned CryptoPunks works.
Following Sotheby's Wednesday evening sales, which generated a combined $597 million, the auction house's head of business development, Mari-Claudia Jiménez, said in a press statement that the art market had taken "a leap forward into new territory." Sotheby's head of sales for global fine art, Brooke Lampley, added: "Tonight we took the pulse of the market -- and it is clearly racing."