As a segment of a three-part marathon of auctions, Sotheby’s wrapped up its Contemporary Art Evening Sale on Wednesday, May 12. The event brought in a grand total of $218.3 million in profits, but there was one star artwork that stood out among all the offerings. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 mixed media painting Versus Medici led the evening’s sales, selling for a whopping $50.8 million. The final bid on the artwork even topped its original high pre-sale estimate of $50 million.
The subversive piece is a self-portrait of the young artist, completed when Basquiat was only 22 years old. In it, the artist crowns himself as royalty—a successor and formidable opponent to the legacy of greats upheld by the Western canon of art history. Teeming with symbolism and many elements of the artist’s signature iconography, Versus Medici references visual language from the works of Renaissance masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli.
“In Versus Medici, Basquiat takes command of the Western art narrative, and crowns himself, the son of immigrants from Haiti and Puerto Rico, as artistic royalty, taking on the old masters and positioning himself as the almighty successor to centuries of artistic genius,” Sotheby’s says in a statement. “With great intensity and visual force, and acutely aware of the exclusion of artists based on race from institutional and critical consideration, Basquiat used his position at the periphery of the art establishment to forge a new and highly referential visual language.”
Scroll down to learn more about Jean-Michel Basquiat’s groundbreaking piece.