The booming art market of recent decades has set unbelievable price tags for the most expensive paintings sold, especially in the Western world. One after another, existing records have been squelched by the cascade of ever-higher auction bids. For the long-dead artists who created them, many of whom had suffered penury in their lifetime, this posthumous appreciation might even ring somewhat ironic – especially given who many of the buyers of their artwork ended up being.
Here are the 11 most expensive paintings ever sold to date from art history. The values are all reported in US dollars and the nominal figure at which they were accounted at the time of purchase. In today’s money, these figures would be higher by approx. 2% for every year that has passed due to inflation. Also, note that this only includes reported sales, there are sure to have been sales of expensive artworks between two private parties which were not disclosed to the public.
1 — Salvator Mundi, Leonardo da Vinci — $450.3 million
Authenticated in 2011 after centuries of being considered lost, this da Vinci treasure was first sold privately in 2013 for $75 million. Following that soon thereafter for $127.5 million to the Russian collector Dmitry Rybolovlev. It was then, to the great public interest, sold by the British auctioneer Christie’s for the record-breaking sum.
The purchaser was identified as Prince Badr ibn Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, acting for the Abu Dhabi Louvre. It transpired, however, that Badr had acted as an intermediary for the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The painting has not been seen since however was reported to have been on a superyacht in 2019.
While Leonardo Da Vinci only appears in this list of the most expensive paintings sold once. This is largely due to all of his works having been in museums around the world for the last 500 years and as such never have an opportunity to sell. This is a major contributing factor to those lesser-known works selling for such a high price – the scarcity of Leonardo Da Vinci paintings at auction.
2 — Interchange, Willem de Kooning — $300 million
This transitional William de Kooning piece was made the world’s most expensive painting in September 2015 (soon overtaken by Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in 2015). The American hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin purchased it for $300 million from the David Geffen Foundation. It had been sold to them by the artist in 1955 for a respectable $4,000 ($39,000 in today’s money).
3 — The Card Players, Paul Cézanne — over $250 million
Paul Cézanne’s painstaking study of a pair of Provençal peasants playing cards was reportedly bought by the Qatari royal family in 2011 from the collection of the Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos.
There is ambiguity over the price involved in this confidential deal, which was revealed by Vanity Fair a year after it took place. $250 million is understood to be the lowest likely price.
Paul Cezanne was a French Neo-Impressionist painter who was active in France in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
4 — When Will You Marry?, Paul Gaugin — $210 million
French Neo-Impressionist artist Paul Gaugin’s double-named (“Quand te maries-tu?” in Paul Gaugin’s native French, also “Nafea faa ipoipo?” in the local Tahitian). But this unremarkable painting was purchased in 2015 by the sister of the emir of Qatar, Sheikha Al-Mayassa, from the Staechelin family in Switzerland whose ancestor had purchased it from Paul Gaugin for a trifling sum.
5 — Number 17A, Jackson Pollock — $200 million
Once again, it was hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin who, in September 2015, set a short-lived record for the highest fee ever paid for a painting. The emblematic Pollock canvas in fiberboard was sold by the business magnate David Geffen (he of the above-mentioned Foundation).
Jackson Pollock January 28, 1912 – August 11, 1956, was an American abstract expressionist artist who was active in the mid 20th century.
6 — Wasserschlagen III, Gustav Klimt — $182.8 million
Gustav Klimt’s famous painting has had a turbulent history. It was pilfered from its Jewish owner, as a matter of policy, by the Nazis. Unbeknownst to the Nazi party, the official who was gifted the painting, Gustav Ucicky, may have been an illegitimate son of Klimt’s.
The sale of 2012 — for some $56 million, to the controversial Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier — was possible only after Gustav’s widow, Ursula, came to a fifty-fifty settlement with the Jewish family with whom the painting originates. Finally, the painting was purchased for the astounding sum by the Russian magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev. (He of the sale of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Salvator Mundi). But not without intrigue.
For it appears that Bouvier cheated Rybolovlev into paying $70 million more than was necessary. This was by pretending that he was not the sole owner and that a third party was also involved. Lawsuits are reportedly ongoing, as this is not the only artwork that Rybolovlev claims was sold to him by Bouvier under false pretense.
Gustav Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter who was active in the early 20th century. He was considered to be the key artist of the Art Noveau period in Western Europe. Many of his works are amongst the most expensive paintings sold in history.
7 — No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red), Mark Rothko — $186 million
Another painting implicated in the Bouvier Affair is Mark Rothko’s most famous canvas. In 2014, Dmitry Rybolovlev paid the equivalent of $186 million to the Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier under the assumption that the latter was acting as an intermediary (a dealer, indeed) for a third person. Bouvier was in fact the owner, having bought the painting for over $85 million.
Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970) was a Russian-born American abstract expressionist painter. He was active in the 20th century, specializing in color field paintings.
8 — Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, Rembrandt — $180 million
A rarer kind of transaction on the art scene is the acquisition by an artistic institution of an artwork belonging to private citizens. This was the case with the pair of portraits by Rembrandt depicting the soon-to-be Soolmans couple as a gift for their wedding. The Rijksmuseum from the Netherlands and the French Louvre came together in 2015 to purchase the portraits and become half-owners each. It is an exceptional case of international purchase and ownership between museums. The portraits are to be shifted from one museum to the other according to the agreement. This is a rather unique scenario.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn 15 July 1606 – 4 October 1669) was a Durch Golden Age painter. He was active in the 17th century.
9 — Les Femmes d’Alger (“Version O”), Picasso — $179.4 million
By ‘Version O’ we mean the last of 15 paintings constituting Picasso’s Women of Algiers series. While all the other ‘versions’ also sold for many millions — against the equivalent of $2 million that the American Ganz family paid for the whole set in 1956. The ‘Version O’ reached the astounding figure after being auctioned to an unknown Saudi collector in 1997 for $31.9 million. Following this for $179.4 million dollars in 2015. The Qatari prime minister, Hamad Al Thani, claimed the prize.
Pablo Ruiz Picasso (25 October 1881 – 8 April 1973) was a Spanish painter and sculptor. He was active mainly in France in the 20th century. He was also a leading pioneer of modern art, especially cubism.
10 — Nu couché, Amedeo Modigliani — $170.4 million
Modigliani’s famous nude set a record for the artist when it was acquired by the Chinese businessman Liu Yiqian in 2015. Liu Yiqian was a Shanghai-based stock trader and investor who made billions in the 1980s. He has since turned his focus to art collecting.
Amedeo Modigliani was an Italian painter and sculptor. He was active in France in the 19th and 20th centuries.
11 — No. 5, 1948, Jackson Pollock — $140 million
In May 2006, this painting with the distinctive Pollock technique established a world record for the most costly painting. The record lasted until April 2011, when Cèzanne’s Card Players pushed the bar even higher. It was sold to an unknown purchaser by ever artsy magnate David Geffen.
Jackson Pollock January 28, 1912 – August 11, 1956, was an American abstract expressionist artist. He was active in the mid 20th century.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s both had record years in 2020 and 2021 so we are sure to see the most expensive paintings sold listing change once more.
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