On Wednesday, Nov. 19, at 12:35 P.M., Barbara Strongin, a Christie’s auctioneer, came to the final lot of the morning session in a sale of contemporary art. An untitled drawing by Jean Michel Basquiat-one of those packed madman creations with strong calligraphy and an electrified figure-swung into view on the revolving stage of the salesroom. Ms. Strongin, a soignée figure who has a crisp, businesslike manner behind the podium, took the first bids. One came from the floor and another from a white telephone manned by Philippe Ségalot, a Christie’s specialist in 20th-century art. The auction house had predicted that the drawing-an untitled work from the estate of a California collector who purchased the work in 1982-would bring between $60,000 and $80,000. But only a few seconds had elapsed before people knew that this was not going to be an ordinary auction.
To most people who have been following the art market for the past seven years, auction fever is as unknown a phenomenon as disco fever. But on that November day at Christie’s, the untitled Basquiat drawing sold for a record $255,500. Richard Marshall, a curator who has worked with the Basquiat estate and served on a committee that authenticated the untitled drawing, said that he knew something was up after the price quickly passed the $100,000 mark. “It was kind of exciting because it kept going,” Mr. Marshall recalled, referring to the bidding. “It was entertaining and surprising. I turned around to see who was bidding. The auctioneer kept saying, ‘In the back of the room,’ and I wanted to see who it was.”
The person in the back of the room was Leo Malca, an art collector from Cali, Colombia, who rented a gallery last year to show his collection of Basquiats, as well as works by Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring. Mr. Malca, a self-described “passionate collector,” told The Observer that he was determined to buy the drawing but grew anxious as he realized that not one but two other people were bidding against him. One was on the telephone with Mr. Ségalot. The other was seated in front of him.
“When it went higher and higher, I thought the other two people were not going to stop. For some reason, they stopped at that price. I had a ceiling. It was where I stopped,” he said. His last bid was $230,000. With the buyer’s premium that Christie’s charges its clients, Mr. Malca paid a total of $255,500 for the drawing. A year ago, according to Tony Shafrazi, a dealer who specializes in works by Basquiat, the drawing would have been worth $100,000, “tops.”
To Mr. Shafrazi, Basquiat is “a daily meal,” he said, and the renewed strength in the Basquiat market is not a surprise. Basquiat, who died in 1988 at the age of 27, left an estate that contained thousands of artworks, a legacy that resulted in a movie, Basquiat , and a cult following that rivals that of Andy Warhol. According to Mr. Shafrazi, the market for Basquiats dropped precipitously in the early 90’s, like the rest of the art market. “Where works had been going for $550,000,” he said, “they were worth $300,000. Some works did not sell at all.” But now, according to Mr. Shafrazi, the market is back, “but with intelligence. That drawing is one of the 10 great drawings done by Basquiat. It is as great as a Picasso.”
The drawing, which features a central figure in the middle of a deeply worked ground of calligraphy, does look like a late Picasso, an analogy that does not seem to have hurt the drawing. “When you think about it in terms of Picasso,” said Mr. Shafrazi, “this is a really good buy. A Picasso drawing like this would be worth a million dollars.” The other Basquiats in the Christie’s sale also achieved high prices. An untitled drawing that was expected to go for $60,000 to $80,000 went for $195,000. “Made in Japan,” a drawing that depicts a masked figure, was sold for $134,500. “Gin Soaked Critic,” an insectlike stick figure baring his teeth of gouache on paper mounted on board, also fetched $134,500. “These are the best Basquiat drawings you can find,” said Mr. Ségalot, who also compared the drawings to Picassos, the benchmark, it seems, for art garnering high prices at auction. “I was not surprised by the prices,” he said confidently.
Gerard Basquiat, the father of the late artist who also manages his estate, was not available for comment. But Mr. Basquiat may have been the least surprised by the auction results. Two years ago, he stopped the flow of artworks from the Basquiat estate that had been going into the market at a steady clip since the artist’s death. Mr. Marshall, who advises Mr. Basquiat on curatorial matters, said that he does not know why Mr. Basquiat decided to withhold the pictures in the estate from the market. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that basic supply and demand would invariably drive up the price of individual Basquiats once such a major source has been stopped.
Still, Mr. Malca feels that he has made a good investment. “I have already been offered more than I paid for it,” he said.
He Never Signed a Work: Hugh Auchincloss Steers
If Hugh Steers had lived longer, he might have become the next Lucien Freud. That, it seems, was the consensus of a group of Chelsea art lovers and family members of the late artist, who died of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 33. They had gathered at the Richard Anderson Fine Arts gallery on the evening of Nov. 22 for the first show of the artist’s work since his death. It is also the debut show at the relocated gallery.
In loaded paintings that centered on figures drawn with the facility of a Renaissance artist, Steers, like Mr. Freud, used flesh in deeply personal ways. In Steers’ case, the figures have to do with his male sexual preference and fascination with the accouterments of downtown drag culture.
“I just hope that Hugh doesn’t get pigeonholed as a gay AIDS artist,” said Burr Steers, the artist’s brother and one of the co-heirs of the estate. Mr. Steers is a Hollywood-based movie actor whose next role is as a “door Nazi” in The Last Days of Disco , Wit Stillman’s film about Studio 54 that opens next summer. “I play the guy at the door who tells people they can’t come into the place,” he said. Their mother Nina Auchincloss Straight was the stepsister of the late Jacqueline Onassis and half-sister of Gore Vidal. Mr. Steers pointed out, though, that his brother consciously refused to trade on his family’s name.
“Several dealers wanted him to go as Hugh Auchincloss Steers. That’s his full name. He refused. He would threaten to wound you,” said Mr. Steers. “I really admired that. He lived the artist’s life on Avenue B. He could have painted horses and debutantes and made a lot of dough up in Newport selling stuff to our relatives.”