With a mere $9.99 UV flashlight, collectors can find out if a million-dollar Jean-Michel Basquiat work points to important insights to his artistry.

That’s what Emily Macdonald-Korth, a New York-based art conservator, suggests to collectors of the renowned American graffiti artist’s paintings after a surprising discovery last month. It began with a client who wanted to confirm if the Basquiat canvas he just acquired was painted in 1981, a particularly important period in the renowned graffiti artist’s evolution from street art to canvas.

Macdonald-Korth went through the usual checklist of analysis and cross-references. Nothing signalled to anything unusual or raised suspicions on the untitled work.

Then she took out her UV flashlight, as per routine.

A portion of the untitled work in question (left). An arrow shows up under UV light (right). (Image: Longevity Art Preservation)

The black light is an essential part of the art conservator’s armoury for checking out signs of restoration. But she discovered much more: two glowing arrows on the canvas made in ‘invisible’ ink.

She told online art watchdog Artnet that she has “never seen anything like it. He basically did a totally secret part of this painting.”

The life and career of Basquiat, who died in 1988 from an overdose, is a well-documented one. His work is celebrated in auctions and his paintings having fetched remarkably high prices. In 2017, Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) scored a whopping US$110 million (S$150 million), making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold from an American artist.

Yet very little is known about his use of fluorescent material in his paintings. To date, only one other painting is discovered to have similar markings. In 2012, Sotheby’s London brought to light a hidden signature in ‘invisible’ ink on a 1982 painting, Orange Sports Figure. Basquiat rarely signs off in his full name, preferring to identify his work with the iconic three-point crown doodle, making it a significant and rare discovery.

Orange Sports Figure (1982) was created a few months after the untitled painting in question.(Image: Sotheby's)
Basquiat, with invisible ink, signs off on Orange Sports Figure (1982). (Image: Sotheby's)

The enigmatic scribbles of words and imagery in Basquiat works explore race, identity and religion; themes that continue to hold relevance today. The discovery, however, casts an even more mysterious light to his art. It’s not known if the invisible drawings are merely sketches for the painting, or intended to be a part of the piece.

“He must have been playing with a UV flashlight and thought, ‘this is cool.’ It really relates to his use of erasure,” Macdonald-Korth said. She believes that more of such discoveries under UV light can be found in his paintings, and goes so far as to suggest that the famous Poison Oasis (1981) might carry hidden markings of arrows as well.

Though, a note to Basquiat collectors: finding such markings may not necessarily lead to an amazing auction sales record. What one can walk away with though, is a new appreciation of the late artist’s masterpieces.

(Hero image: Pierre Houlès, Featured imgae: Dmitri Kasterine)

Jasmine Tay
Senior Writer
Jasmine Tay is the dining, culture and jewellery writer. She makes fine silver jewellery and causes mini-explosions in the kitchen when she can't afford fancy dinners. Sometimes she tells people what she thinks about art, and binges on the music of Danzig when they don’t agree.