In a dramatic video posted to Instagram on Thursday evening, Sotheby’s unveiled a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat set to star in the upcoming contemporary art evening sale. According to a press release from the house, the work has never come to auction. It was acquired in 1990 by a private collector who bought it from Belgian collector Stephane Janssen, who in turn snagged it straight from the artist’s studio during a visit overseen by Larry Gagosian.
The 1982 work, titled Versus Medici, was painted by the artist when he was only 22 years old. It is estimated to fetch between $35 million and $50 million, automatically vaulting it into the highest echelon of paintings by the late artist. Four of the top five most expensive Basquiat lots were painted in 1982. If the painting achieves its high estimate, it could be the third most expensive sold at auction to date, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.
In the animated, vertical canvas, Basquiat “ambitiously wages war with the history of art and not only assets his own place within this history, but also crowns himself a successor to these Renaissance masters,” according to a press release.
The title invokes the all-powerful Medici family who reigned during the renaissance, and would’ve been familiar to the well-studied artist who spent time in Modena, Italy ahead of his exhibitions in 1981 and 1982 at Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli. As Basquiat’s star rose in New York, LA, and on the international scene, he would have become more aware of the power structures propping up the international market. This painting, the auction house claims, is a gauntlet thrown down to establish himself “within the canon.”
A black skeletal figure stands the entire length of the canvas with a mess of pink intestines drawn over his torso—a nod to both da Vinci’s interest in science and the artist’s familiarity with Gray’s Anatomy. The composition has hallmarks of Basquiat’s best work, including a crown, scrawled text that reads “Aopkehsks,” and overlapping colors of blue, red, yellow. All of these are prized attributes for eagle-eyed collectors.
Sotheby’s announcement comes right on the heels of the record-setting Christie’s sale of Basquiat’s Warrior (1982), which sold for $41.8 million in Hong Kong.
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