Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work doesn’t come up for auction very often. When it does, the prices are always astounding. On June 16th at Christie’s in New York, a painting by Basquiat sold for $48.8 million. And on November 11th at Sotheby’s in London, another work sold for $7 million, despite some controversy about the authenticity of the piece.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an artist who became famous in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when he produced a number of works on canvas that were concerned with the notion of black identity in America. In his paintings, Basquiat drew from historical references to slavery in the United States (he was born in Brooklyn) including repeated use of the crown motif—a symbol for both royalty and the crown of thorns worn by Jesus.

The crown image first appeared in Basquiat’s work in early 1982, when he painted it on top of graffiti—a feature that became typical for his paintings. Later that same year, Basquiat included a crown as part of a larger painting done in blue-gray tones titled “Untitled (Horse Hunks).” The crown in the painting was made of three points, usually with a strong use of cross hatching. In this way, it was very different from many European crowns; Basquiat’s version was more organic looking and he used pointed edges to create visually stunning compositions on canvas, all the while avoiding the European aesthetics of his other paintings.

In 1983, Basquiat painted many pieces that included a crown and in most cases wrote “SAMO” (which means I alone) or SAMO© (a trademark symbol). In some paintings he also used the word “KING.” Though there is some controversy about the meaning of SAMO—some critics opine that it means “Same Old Shit”—it is clear that Basquiat used it to represent himself, and in a way he was saying that he was his own king.

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