Japanese Online Retailer Maezawa Buys $57.3 Million Basquiat

  • Yusaku Maezawa purchased $81.4 million of art at Christie's
  • The 40-year-old says he'll open a private museum near Tokyo

Yusaku Maezawa, the 40-year-old founder of a Japanese online retailer, bought Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting depicting a horned devil’s head with streams of red, green and black paint for $57.3 million.

Maezawa purchased the Basquiat and four other works totaling $81.4 million, the Contemporary Art Foundation, a Tokyo-based organization he founded in 2012, said in a statement Wednesday. Maezawa said he plans to open a private museum in his hometown of Chiba outside Tokyo to show his collection, which he has developed over the past 10 years.

“The moment I first saw the painting at the auction preview, the piece overflowing with his passion and technique, I felt shivers all over my body,” Maezawa said in the statement. “Regardless of its condition or sales value, I was driven by the responsibility to acknowledge great art and the need to pass on not only the artwork itself, but also the knowledge of the artist’s culture and his way of life to future generations.”

Six Records

"Untitled" by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
"Untitled" by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Photographer: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

Asian collectors went shopping at Christie’s contemporary art auction on Tuesday, snapping up works and setting records for Western artists The $318.4 million tally for the postwar and contemporary art evening auction in New York represented a 52 percent decline from a similar sale a year ago, but six artist records were broken and the results fell within the estimated range of $280.6 million to $391.2 million.

Instagram: Instagram photo by Yusaku Maezawa

Estimated at more than $40 million, Basquiat’s 1982 work was sold by Adam Lindemann, a gallerist and collector who bought it for $4.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2004. The sale set a record for the artist. Sales results include buyer’s premiums; presale estimates do not.

Maezawa, bidding through Christie’s specialist Koji Inoue, also snapped up a sculpture by Jeff Koons, a painting by Richard Prince, an Alexander Calder mobile and a light piece spelling “Eat War” by Bruce Nauman. “Runaway Nurse," Prince’s 2007 work, went for $9.7 million, a record for the artist.

The founder of the online fashion website, Zozotown, Maezawa’s purchases accounted for one-quarter of the evening’s tally.

Slimmed Down

The sale was slimmed down from a year earlier, when Christie’s offered 82 items in a more robust market. Auction sales are showing signs of contracting amid financial-market volatility, falling oil prices and underperforming hedge funds. Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale on May 9 fell 61 percent from a year ago.

“We had a big challenge because of what happened last night,” said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s global head of postwar and contemporary art, referring to Sotheby’s auction at which only 66 percent of the lots sold. “I came to work today and told the team that our job is to get the sell-through rate of 85 percent or higher.”

At the Christie’s sale, 52 of the 60 offered lots, or 87 percent, found buyers.

Fewer Guarantees

To boost confidence, Christie’s staff members made phone calls, asking sellers to reduce their minimum prices and urging buyers to bid with “their eyes, not ears,” Gorvy said.

Having lost millions of dollars on guarantees last November, closely held Christie’s cut back on risky incentives to sellers. Tuesday’s evening sale had 10 guaranteed lots, down from 50 at the similar auction in May 2015. Eight had been financed by third parties. One of the lots guaranteed by Christie’s, a small photo-realist Gerhard Richter painting estimated at $7 million to $10 million, failed to sell.

“Within the context of May 2016 it was a strong sale,” said Guy Jennings, managing director of the Fine Art Fund Group in London. “It’s not 2014 or 2015. It’s silly to pretend otherwise. The world has changed.”

Klein, Rothko

Other Asian buyers, bidding in the salesroom, won a piece by Yves Klein that sold for $3.3 million and a painting by Roy Lichtenstein that went for $8.7 million.

Bidding was muted on the majority of lots estimated at more than $10 million.

Mark Rothko’s 1957 painting “No. 17” fetched $32.6 million, going to the single bidder. The 7.6-foot-tall canvas showing two greenish rectangles surrounded by a field of blue was estimated at $30 million to $40 million.

Clyfford Still’s abstract painting “PH-234" also had one bidder -- a telephone client of Laura Paulson, Christie’s chairman of postwar and contemporary art for the Americas -- that sold for $28.2 million.

Thin Air

“The air is very thin above $10 million,” said Hugo Nathan, director of London-based Beaumont Nathan Independent Art Advisors. “A lot of that crazy money has wised up in the past few years. When you take away the guarantees and there is no safety net, there might be a push-back. Do you really want to be the lone bidder at $25 million?”

"Plunge" by Kerry James Marshall.
"Plunge" by Kerry James Marshall.
Source: Christie’s

Collectors seemed to be more comfortable in the seven-figure range.

Kerry James Marshall, whose 1992 painting-collage “Plunge” sold for $2.2 million, was among artists for whom records were set. The consignors bought it at Marshall’s first solo show in New York in 1993 when it cost $7,500, according to the artist’s dealer, Jack Shainman.

Art advisers Barbara Guggenheim and Abigail Asher won Joan Mitchell’s 1969 abstract painting at $9.8 million on behalf of a client, surpassing the high estimate of $7 million.

“Barbara would have gone much higher,” Asher said.

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