A Prized Basquiat Skull Painting Fetched $93.1 Million at Christie’s, the Second-Highest Price Ever Paid for a Work by the Artist at Auction

A skull painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $93.1 million (with premium) in New York today, making it the second-highest price paid for a work by the artist ever sold at auction, and offering the first glimpse of the demand for high-end art as the world is starting to come of the pandemic.

Titled In This Case (1983), the painting was estimated at $50 million, and is an undisputed star of Christie’s 21st-century art auction. The live-streaming event, which is still ongoing, is expected to tally at least $145 million, according to the auction house.

Basquiat’s more than six-by-six-foot canvas depicts a large skull head set against a ruby-red background, with a blazing eye, protruding green teeth, and fractured anatomy.

At least six hopefuls from New York and Hong Kong chased the work, which started with an opening bid of $40 million. The winner was a client of Ana Maria Celis, head of the Christie’s sale.

The seller was Italian businessman Giancarlo Giammetti, co-founder of the fashion house Valentino, according to people familiar with the work. It used to hang in Giammetti’s Manhattan apartment, where it was photographed above his dining table in a 2013 Architectural Digest spread. Christie’s declined to comment on the identity of the seller.

Paintings with skull imagery are among Basquiat’s most sought-after works. The symbol is part memento mori, an icon of death; part self-portrait; and part memorable logo, harkening back to Basquiat’s origins as a street artist.

In This Case last sold at auction for $999,500 at Sotheby’s in 2002. Giammetti purchased the painting from Gagosian in 2007. It is the last of three large skull canvases Basquiat made in successive years, according to Christie’s. The one painted in 1982 has held the $110.5 million auction record for the artist since 2017, when Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa bought it at Sotheby’s New York.

The lot was ensured to sell thanks to a third-party guarantee offered by an outside backer. Final prices include the buyer’s premium; estimates don’t.

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