Basquiat's `Flesh and Spirit' Fetches $30.7 Million at Sotheby's

(Bloomberg) -- Sotheby’s crushed it on Wednesday.

The auction house sold $392.3 million of art in New York, setting 15 records and igniting numerous bidding wars. Of the 74 lots offered, all but two found buyers.

A monumental painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $30.7 million, more than 2,000 times its purchase price 35 years ago. Three living black artists set auction records in bidding frenzies.

“There’s a lot of money chasing good quality material that’s fresh to the market, correctly estimated, with good stories and ‘wow’ factor,” Tad Smith, Sotheby’s chief executive officer, said in an interview after the sale.

Basquiat’s roughly 12-foot-by-12-foot “Flesh and Spirit” was sold by the estate of Dolores Ormandy Neumann, an early champion of 1980s New York graffiti artists. It was offered during Sotheby’s contemporary art sale in New York.

It’s the most expensive Basquiat (1960-1988) to go on the block since Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa bought a painting of a skull by the artist at Sotheby’s for $110.5 million last May, the auction record for an American artist. Neumann, who died in 2016, bought “Flesh and Spirit” in 1983 for $15,000.

Her husband of 62 years, Hubert Neumann, tried to stop the auction, claiming in a lawsuit that his wife tried to disinherit him in a will executed while she was “receiving serious medical treatment” and leaving most of her property to one of their children.

Pieces by black artists also drew dozens of bidders. “Past Times,” a painting by Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall, sold for $21.1 million, a record for a living black artist at auction; the artist’s previous record of $5 million was established six months ago. Barkley Hendricks’s portrait of a woman “Brenda P” sold for $2.18 million, a record for the late artist at auction.

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The sale included works sold to benefit the Studio Museum in Harlem. The entire group comprised 42 works with the high estimate of $10 million. Yet the first five lots offered on Wednesday tallied $16.4 million. Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s lush “Bush Babies” sold for $3.38 million, an auction record for the artist.

“It’s a testament to the importance and centrality of these artists within the narrative of contemporary art,” said Thelma Golden, Studio Museum’s director since 2005. The museum will use its proceeds from the auction to help renovate and expand the museum’s 125th Street home with a design by David Adjaye.

Bankers, Performers

The museum’s chairman, Raymond McGuire, who serves as global head of corporate and investment banking at Citigroup Inc., attended. So did legendary oil trader Andy Hall and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

“It’s an extraordinary evening," McGuire said after the auction.

Sitting in the front row was Swizz Beatz, a celebrity hip-hop artist and producer. He won a portrait by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye for $555,000, which was part of the Studio Museum group.

‘Buy More’

“It’s pretty epic,” Swizz Beatz said of the museum. “It’s time for us to buy more of us.”

The evening started with a group of 26 works sold by the Mandel Foundation. Every single one sold, totaling $107.9 million. The top lot of the group was a work on paper by Mark Rothko that fetched $18.9 million.

The regular contemporary auction followed, with records for emerging and established artists. Auction records were set for emerging artist Avery Singer, whose computer-inspired composition fetched $735,000, and established artists like Cecily Brown, Grace Hartigan and Agnes Martin.

"Women and African-American artists are knocking the ball out of the ball park," said Miami-based collector Mera Rubell. "It’s like a new frontier."

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