As the financial markets skid wildly, some collectors are waging bets that art will be viewed as a safe haven. Among them is Lars Ulrich, a songwriter and the drummer for the heavy-metal band Metallica, who has consigned “Untitled (Boxer),” a 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, for sale by Christie’s in New York next month. It is expected to bring from $12 million to $16 million according to The New York Times.
“Of course it’s an awkward time to sell, but I’ve always been about taking chances,” Metallica’s Lars Ulrich said.
“I have a lot of faith in the art market,” Lars Ulrich added. “It’s perhaps the last frontier where the best of the best will not go the way of the rest of the economy.” Recently his collecting has gone in a different direction, he said. Rather than relying on auctions, he has begun scouring galleries, buying the work of emerging artists.
At first Metallica’s drummer was drawn to works by European avant garde artists such as Asger Jorn and Karen Appel. Metallica’s founding member then started to collect graffiti artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Sam Francis and Basquiat.
“I have the best collection of Asger Jorn on this planet,” Lars Ulrich told Playboy magazine in 2001. “I have what is universally considered as one of the two greatest Basquiat paintings; I spent a year-and-a-half chasing it down.”
“Hanging out backstage with Kid Rock is an amazing turn-on, no less so than sitting and staring at my Dubuffet for an hour with a gin and tonic.”
“As a collector I view myself as a caretaker of works of art, rather than simply an owner,” said Ulrich. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have shared 10 great years with this truly iconic painting by Basquiat and it’s time to put it back into circulation and let someone else enjoy it as much as I have over the last decade.”
The Basquiat, which goes on the block Nov. 12, depicts a victorious black boxer, his hands waving in the air, against a richly painted background filled with the artist’s signature graffiti scrawl. The figure is part hero, part warrior, part victim. It is also said to be autobiographical.
The artist, who died of a drug overdose in 1988 when he was just 27, grew up in Brooklyn, where he liked to while away time at the Brooklyn Museum. “I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them,” he once said, adding, “The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings.”
“Untitled (Boxer)” was one of the centerpieces of the 2005 Basquiat retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, which also went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich bought it in 1999 after seeing it in a show in Vienna.
To promote the painting to an international audience, Christie’s is hanging it Friday in its King Street galleries in London. The showing is timed closely to the Frieze Art Fair, which will attract hundreds of collectors to London next week. (The fair opens to the public next Thursday.) It will also be the cover image of the sales catalog for the New York auction on Nov. 12.
“We’re talking about a very finite amount of material by an artist who died young,” said Brett Gorvy, a co-head of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department. “Lars has been an incredible collector, passionate and intelligent in his approach, often pursuing specific works for several years before he made a purchase”. Although Christie’s coyly states that the sales estimate can be obtained “on request,” Mr. Gorvy said it could bring $12 million to $16 million.
The question is whether it will fare as well as an untitled Basquiat canvas from 1981 — of a primitive figure with clenched teeth, his oversize hands held high in the air — that brought $14.6 million at auction last year, a record for the artist. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich is no auction novice: in 2002 he sold five works at a Christie’s auction in New York, including Basquiat’s “Profit I” (1982), a dark canvas dominated by a skeletal black man that brought $5.5 million, a record for the artist at the time.
“This is my last Basquiat,” he said.