Why That Record-Setting Basquiat Painting Is Worth So Much More Than Money

Basquiat's Untitled (1982) sold for a record-setting $110.5 million this week. The painting, however, is actually worth much more than mere money.

After a 10-minute bidding war Thursday night, Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (1982) sold for a whopping $110.5 million. "Now he goes into the pantheon," Sotheby's auctioneer Oliver Barker said, according to Art News.

With the sale, NPRnoted, the late Basquiat has earned the distinction of "the highest sum ever paid" for an American artwork at auction.

"I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece," Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese billionaire and art collector who won the piece, said on Instagram Thursday. "When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible."

View this video on YouTube


$110.5 million is, by all accounts, a lot of money. But fuck money! To get a closer read on the true worth of Basquiat's painting, described by the Guardian's Jonathan Jones as a work that "bleeds history," Complex reached out to Al Diaz, who co-founded the mythical SAMO© with Basquiat, as well as Basquiat screenwriter and Graffiti Rock creator Michael Holman.

View this video on YouTube


"Historically speaking, it's often an elite few who dictate what constitutes excellence and value," Diaz, who's resurrecting the iconic SAMO© moniker this year in collaboration with House of Roulx, told Complex. "I personally do not subscribe to this norm. It has very little relevance in my world view. In my humble opinion, the Basquiat painting purchased was not one of Jean-Michel's strongest works, but if it brings Mr. Maezawa joy, that's the highest value for him. Only he can confirm whether it is worth every cent. My mother's response was that a sum of money so large could feed a Third World country for a while. Perhaps it is also a question of priorities."

For Holman, the sale marks a moment of "great profundity" and potential amplification of Basquiat's revolutionary convictions. "This is an art historic moment of great profundity, now that Basquiat's poetry and anger has been elevated to the zenith of world culture," Holman told Complex. "With the record-breaking sale of 'Untitled,' the thorny issues Basquiat raises in his work—namely the myriad injustices one suffers living in America as a Black man—will be amplified."

Collectors of Basquiat's paintings, Holman added, have "more than art" hanging on their walls.

"Basquiat's work is equal part spiritual gift and revolutionary weapon," Holman said. "This should be a moment of great pride and admiration, for what Basquiat has done. Through his art (and specifically through the spectacular sale of 'Untitled') Basquiat has shown the world our genius, our value, our suffering, and our power, all in one stroke. There is no price that can represent that. Art is something much greater than anything material: it is a literal reflection of the human soul that created it."

And now, Holman said, we can "bask in the light of one of humankind's greatest gifts, the soul of Jean-Michel Basquiat."

Latest in Style