Sotheby’s Fetches Nearly $11M for Yoko Ono’s Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat painted “Cabra” is approximately 1981. (Sotheby’s via Courthouse News Service)

MANHATTAN (CN) — A painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat inspired by a Muhammad Ali boxing match sold Thursday night at Sotheby’s in New York for $10.9 million.

Though the auction house has not revealed the buyer, it noted that the seller, performance artist Yoko Ono, plans to direct a portion of the proceeds to benefit the Spirit Foundation, a charity she founded in the late 1970s with her husband, the late John Lennon.

Basquiat painted “Cabra” in 1981 or 1982, inspired  by Ali’s 1970 knockout of the Argentine heavyweight Oscar Bonavena, known as “The Bull.” The painting shows a bull’s skull on a bright red background above a boxing ring. Above the skull, Basquiat painted hieroglyphics denoting a “TKO,” boxing jargon for a technical knockout.

The word “cabra” is Spanish for goat, and that term is linked in English with an acronym for “Greatest of All Time,” as the boxer Ali was often called.

Sotheby’s expected the painting to fetch between $9 million and $12 million. Prior to the exhibition of “Cabra” at its York Avenue galleries in New York this month, Sotheby’s displayed the painting at its Hong Kong and London locations.

Ono acquired the acrylic and oilstick painting in 1993 from the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York.

“I have had the pleasure of owning and living with this masterwork for over two decades,” Ono said, as quoted by Sotheby’s promotional materials. “The time has come for it to find a new home, and I am delighted that part of the sale proceeds will benefit the foundation I established years ago with the intention of bringing peace and tolerance to the world.”

The painting had only been exhibited twice before coming Sotheby’s: in Basel, at the Fondation Beyeler, and in Paris at the Musee d’art moderne de la ville de Paris.

Sotheby’s notes that most people are only aware of the painting because it was pictured in an image of Basquiat’s studio, staged immediately to the right of the artist’s easel.

“At first glance, it is the striking crimson hue of Cabrathat sets this painting apart from other works by Basquiat,” Sotheby’s said in its promotional materials. “However, upon closer inspection, the brilliant mind of this contemporary artist comes into full view. Executed at a time when Basquiat was exploring his Haitian and Puerto Rican roots, and becoming increasingly interested in the power and scrutiny of black athletes, the present work belongs to a group of paintings inspired by boxing icons including Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Jersey Joe Walcott and others.”

Sotheby’s called the painting a “physiologically searing and visually-moving” testament to one of Basquiat’s longtime heroes.

Gregoire Billault, who heads Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Department in New York, noted that the auction house just this past May sold another Basquiat work, “Untitled.”

“Dutifully cared for by Ms. Ono, and rarely seen by the public, this painting offers collectors the unique opportunity to own a rare historic moment memorialized in Basquiat’s signature style,” Billault said in the Sotheby’s release. “This work fortuitously brings together three iconic cultural figures – Basquiat, Muhammad Ali and Yoko Ono. Sotheby’s cannot be more proud to share this with the collecting community in November.”

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