From graffiti artist to most expensive painter in America

After U2, now Yoko Ono is selling her Basquiat as prices for the artist soar

What’s happening?

Sotheby's will auction a painting from the private collection of Yoko Ono entitled Cabra by Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York on November 16th. The estimate is $9 million-$12 million. That may seem a staggering sum for a painting that some might say looks like it was created in a creche but isn't excessive.

In May this year, another painting by Basquiat, Untitled, depicting a skull, sold at Sotheby's for what the New York Times described as the "mind-blowing" sum of $110.5 million – the highest price ever paid at auction for an American work of art – and pushing the relatively unknown artist into the same price league as Picasso, Bacon, Warhol, Rothko and Lichtenstein.

Who is Jean-Michel Basquiat?

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1960 – the son of a Haitian immigrant father and a Puerto Rican mother. In the late 1970s, he was a street artist in New York – spray-painting graffiti on buildings in Manhattan.

His graffiti was noticed and adored by Andy Warhol (then the most famous artist in the United States) and Basquiat moved to paint conventional canvasses in a studio. His abstract paintings began selling in the early 1980s – for a few thousand dollars – and he was promoted by various influential contemporary art dealers. Basquiat died from a heroin overdose in 1987, aged 27.


What’s the painting about and why is it called Cabra?

Cabra is an acrylic and oilstick painting dating from 1981-82, measuring 5ft x 5ft and was bought by Yoko Ono from the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York in 1993 for an unknown sum. According to Sotheby's, "Cabra is Spanish for 'goat' or GOAT, shorthand for the 'Greatest of All Time', Muhammad Ali – one of Jean-Michel Basquiat's long-time heroes".

The auction house said the painting was “executed at a time when Basquiat was exploring his Haitian and Puerto Rican roots, and becoming increasingly interested in the power and scrutiny of black athletes, the present work belongs to a group of paintings inspired by boxing icons including Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Jersey Joe Walcott and more”.

Why is Yoko Ono selling?

Ono, now aged 84, is a Japanese artist who became famous when she married John Lennon – singer, songwriter and founder member of The Beatles – in 1969. He was her third husband. Lennon was shot dead in New York in 1980.

She is selling Cabra from her private art collection and said: "I have had the pleasure of owning and living with this masterwork for over two decades. The time has come for it to find a new home, and I am delighted that part of the sale proceeds will benefit the foundation I established years ago with the intention of bringing peace and tolerance to the world."

A portion of the proceeds from the sale will benefit the Spirit Foundation, founded by Ono and Lennon, in the 1970s.

Are Basquiat’s paintings considered good?

In a nutshell – leading art critics considered him a dud but fashionable collectors thought differently and love him. Hilton Kramer, one of the leading US art critics of the 20th century, described Basquiat as a "talentless hustler, street-smart but otherwise invincibly ignorant, who used his youth, his looks, his skin colour and his abundant sex appeal to win an overnight fame that proved to be his undoing".

The even more renowned critic Robert Hughes, in an infamously scathing 1988 essay in New Republic, dismissed Basquiat as a "featherweight" and said the artist was "a small, untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of artworld promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and, no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics".

Hughes went further, claiming that “in a saner culture than this one, the 20-year-old Basquiat might have gone off to four years of boot camp in art school, learned some real drawing abilities (as distinct from the pseudo-convulsive notation that was his trademark), and in general, acquired some of the disciplines and skills without which good art cannot be made. But these were the 1980s. And so he became a star.”

Hughes, writing just a year after Basquiat’s death, didn’t think Basquiat’s work had much of a future, saying: “The reputation may survive, or it may not. If it does, it will only show once more, as if further proof were needed, that a perch in the pantheon of the 1980s does not necessarily depend on merit. Basquiat’s stardom was waning badly when he died, because the fashion that had raised him up was already tired of him”.

Well, not quite. Since his death, prices for Basquiat’s work have rocketed and more than 20 of his paintings have already sold for in excess of $20 million each.

Who buys these paintings?

In May, Sotheby's revealed the buyer of Untitled was the Japanese collector and entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, who plans to display it in a museum in Japan and said he hoped "it brings as much joy to others as it does to me, and that this masterpiece by the 21-year-old Basquiat inspires our future generations". Untitled was created by Basquiat in 1982 and last sold at auction in 1984 for $19,000. It was virtually unknown until Maezawa paid $110.5 million for it.

Last year, the businessman spent $57.3 million at Christie's, New York, on another Basquiat, also Untitled (an image of a horned devil's head). Other buyers of Basquiat have included David Bowie, Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and U2.


Yes, the Irish rock band were among Basquiat's early admirers and purchasers of the artist's work in New York. In 1990, Adam Clayton, the guitarist with U2, bought a drawing by Basquiat for an undisclosed sum from a gallery in Manhattan. The work (as usual, Untitled) was a self-portrait of the artist posing as a martyr, St Sebastien-style. Clayton said the image was "not just about Jean-Michel – it's about being African-American".

He sold it at Christie's, London, in March this year for €2.5 million. At the same time he acquired the drawing for his personal collection, Clayton also bought a Basquiat painting on behalf of U2 which was shipped back to Dublin where it hung in the band's studio for two decades. In 2008, U2 sold the 6sq ft painting Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) at Sotheby's in London for £5.1 million.

Want to see more of his work?

Basquiat: Boom for Real, a large-scale exhibition of the artist's work, is running at the Barbican in London until January 28th, 2018.