If someone had told you during the 1980s that works by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat would become the most expensive produced in the decade, you probably would have been highly skeptical. But that's exactly what happened. Sure, paintings by Eric Fischl have had some spectacular results at auction recently, but overall, no artist from the 1980s can touch Basquiat's spectacular price gains.
This sunny picture has one problem, however: Basquiat's prices have gone up way too fast. Back in 1997, a six-foot-square Basquiat painting would routinely bring $200,000-$300,000 at auction. Only one year later, that same painting was being knocked down for $400,000-$600,000. One major painting, Self-Portrait (estimate $400,000-$600,000), went wild and sold for $3 million (a price that, according to published reports, resulted from "chandelier bidding" and was later reduced to $1.5 million after protests from the buyer -- but that's another story).
Rumor had it that prices in the Basquiat market were driven by a consortium of unidentified European dealers who already had taken deep positions in the Basquiat market. Whatever the reason, many serious collectors and institutions were rapidly priced out of owning a painting.
Does the artist's work live up to the market's hype? While Basquiat produced a lot of junk, if you look at his high-water mark as a painter, you can't help but be impressed by the sophistication of his compositions, painterly surface and effective use of language.
On the other hand, Basquiat only produced mature work for roughly seven years, from 1981 to '88. Furthermore, it's not clear at this point whether his work will survive the test of time. Although many museums own Basquiat paintings, it's odd how one rarely sees his work on display in their permanent collection galleries. It's as if the museums are hedging their bets.
Besides paintings, Basquiat also created a large number of drawings. His best drawings are covered with scattered marks reminiscent of the frenetic energy of Cy Twombly -- without the elegance, but with a greater sense of urgency.
Merely three years ago, you could buy a well-developed 22 by 30 inch Basquiat color oilstick drawing for $35,000. Now, you'd be lucky to find one of quality for $135,000. Great large-scale drawings with dense compositions bring $125,000-$250,000 -- which is the approximate equivalent of a Twombly work on paper. This is a problem as far as comparative values are concerned. Simply put, Basquiat is not as important as Cy Twombly.
Many critics are convinced that Basquiat didn't live long enough to develop his full potential. My theory is that he gave all he had within his few short years, as did rock talents of the 1960s like Jimi Hendrix. It's pointless to speculate on "what could have been."
Ultimately, as with the incomparable Egon Schiele, who also died in his 20s, art history will judge Basquiat's few years of work against the usual 40-plus years of most artists' careers.
By May of 2000, Basquiat prices were no longer on the ascent. Auction results indicated that there was a limit to what buyers would pay. While prices didn't dip, they did level off. This trend is likely to continue through the November 2000 sales. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if buyers became far more selective when bidding on Basquiat.
Another troubling development in the Basquiat market is that his estate is not represented by a mainstream gallery. For that matter, it's not represented by any gallery. During the artist's lifetime, he worked with some questionable dealers (see Vrej Baghoomian -- if you can find him), some prominent trend-setting dealers (Mary Boone) and one of the most powerful dealers in the world (Switzerland's Bruno Bischofberger). Immediately following Jean-Michel Basquiat's death, the artist's father, Gerard Basquiat, made an astute decision when he selected the Robert Miller Gallery to handle the estate.
Unfortunately, from Gerard Basquiat's viewpoint, he eventually determined that he had made too good of a decision. The work began to sell so well that Gerard withdrew the estate, preferring to represent it himself. This robbed the Basquiat market of a certain degree of stability. No longer did standard estate prices -- as in the Andy Warhol and Sam Francis estates -- bring some logic and orderliness to Basquiat's market.
Needless to say, galleries that handle estates are not only concerned with prices. A great deal of time is spent acting as a clearinghouse for information on the artist. A disproportionate amount of time is often spent dealing with questions about authenticity. Gerard Basquiat's short-sighted decision is not likely to change soon, if ever. It also makes you wonder how many paintings and drawings he's holding onto and what their eventual disposition will be.
For collectors who already own a Basquiat, I'd certainly recommend that you hold onto it. But if you're a potential buyer, it behooves you to ask yourself what else you could buy for the same money. Once a blue-chip artist's paintings begin to command more than $500,000, you may have more options than you think.
Recommended reading: Basquiat, A Quick Killing in Art, by Phoebe Hoban.
Recommended viewing: Basquiat, a movie directed by Julian Schnabel.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art.
Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.