Let us, for a moment, go back to the year 2015, one that turned out to be one of the most successful periods for artwork sales in history. Out of ten most expensive art pieces you will see on this list, as many as six of them were sold during that time, setting many records and sending a strong signal that collecting is a passion as much as it is a smart investment. Although 2016 saw a slowdown on a global scale due to China’s weaker economy, the interest in selling and purchasing is still going strong, as the biggest auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips continue to attract both experienced and young collectors. Of course, many of these paintings were sold in disclosed private sales too, and their prices are, well, jaw-dropping.
Why so Expensive? Breaking Sales Record
Surely one of the reasons these artworks ended up being the most expensive art pieces is the fact they were created by world’s most famous artists and that they hold immense value in the history of the arts at large. While most of such artworks are held at museums and other important cultural institutions, and are never for sale, those offered at auctions represent a great opportunity for collectors to obtain one and reach a new level of prestige. Naturally, like with any other market, there are many blatantly economic factors that determine record-breaking sales, such as international growth, the estimates and aggressive marketing. It is no longer strange to see wealthy businessmen, for instance, spend (hundreds of) millions on a single painting, because even in a shaky market, that work of art will keep and justify its value sooner or later.
From de Kooning and Cezanne to Pablo Picasso, Pollock, Rothko and Modigliani, here it the world’s most expensive art to date!
Editors’ Tip: Seven Days in the Art World
In a series of beautifully paced narratives, Sarah Thornton investigates the drama of a Christie’s auction, the workings in Takashi Murakami’s studios, the elite at the Basel Art Fair, the eccentricities of Artforum magazine, the competition behind an important art prize, life in a notorious art-school seminar, and the wonderland of the Venice Biennale. She reveals the new dynamics of creativity, taste, status, money, and the search for meaning in life. A judicious and juicy account of the institutions that have the power to shape art history, based on hundreds of interviews with high-profile players, Thornton’s entertaining ethnography will change the way you look at contemporary culture. Seven Days in the Art World explores the dynamics of creativity, taste, status, money, and the search for meaning in life.
Willem de Kooning - Woman III
One of a series of six paintings by Willem de Kooning dedicated to women, Woman III is a fine example of Abstract Expressionism. Part of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art collection, it couldn’t be shown in the country after the 1979 revolution due to censorship, and in 1994 it was quietly sold to the entertainment magnate and collector David Geffen. He then sold this ”arguably most important post-war painting that is not in a museum” to hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen in November 2006 for whopping $137.5 million, making it the fourth most expensive painting ever sold at the time in a sale brokered by none other than Larry Gagosian. The price of the artwork was also influenced by the fact that the other five artworks are all in world-class museums.
Image via Gagosian Gallery
Jackson Pollock - No. 5
Speaking of David Geffen, that same November he sold another record-breaking painting, this time allegedly to Mexican financier David Martinez. We’re talking about Jackson Pollock’s No. 5 painted in 1948, a 120 by 240 cm (4ft x 8ft) fiberboard covered in splashes of reds, yellows, blues and greys, and one of the artist’s first famous drip paintings. Since it was originally painted, it was completely redone by Pollock himself due to transportation damages, although Alfonso A. Ossorio, who bought it from the artist at the time, liked it and kept it either way. In popular culture, the artwork, which reached a price of $164.3 million, is also mentioned in a song by The Stone Roses entitled Going Down and plays a central role in the 2015 film Ex Machina.
Image via WikiMedia
Amedeo Modigliani - Nu Couche
At $170.4 million, Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché is one of his most widely reproduced and exhibited works. Also known as Red Nude and Reclining Nude, the work shook things up at Christie’s sale in 2015, when it fell in the hands of Chinese businessman Liu Yiqian. it is a part of a famous series of nudes that Modigliani painted in 1917 and it was also featured in his first and only solo exhibition, held in Paris that year at Galerie Berthe Weill, which was immediately shut down by the police due to obscenity and public display of full nudity. He was a familiar face on the streets of Montparnasse and Montmartre as the broke bohemian and he lived most of his short life as a poor man – he died of tuberculosis at the age of 35, in 1920.
Image via cnbc
Pablo Picasso - Les Femmes d’Alger
Inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s 1834 painting The Women of Algiers in their Apartment, Pablo Picasso created his own series of 15 works and numerous drawings of a similar title The Women of Algiers. The legendary Spanish artist often painted homages to fellow creatives he admired, and many of the individual paintings from the series are now in prominent public and private collections. Version O, which went for $179.4 million at Christie’s New York in May 2015 to the former Qatari prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, is the final work painted in 1955. What’s interesting is that Picasso’s then-girlfriend, Jacqueline Roque, modelled for several pieces including Version O – her face is on the figure on the left.
Image via Christie’s
Rembrandt - Pendant portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit
Despite the fact that they were created as two independent portraits, the paintings of newlyweds Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit have always hung together. Both figures were painted in life-size and full in 1634, which was unusual for Rembrandt. The year was crucial in the master’s career, as it launched him as a fine portraitist of the Amsterdam upper class. In September 2015, the museums of Louvre and Rijksmuseum join forces to purchase the artworks from French banker Éric de Rothschild for $180 million, and it will now be interesting to see how this experiment in international art purchasing will fit into exhibition plans of both institutions. Whatever those may be, however, the pieces will not be separated and each museum will own 50% of each painting.
Image via Rijksmuseum
Mark Rothko - No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red)
The fifth most expensive art piece ever sold is entitled No. 6 and it belongs to Color Field painter Mark Rothko. Entitled No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red), it consists of large expanses of colour delineated by uneven, hazy shades, typical of the artist’s other works from this period. It was also the topic of one of the most famous art feuds between Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev and Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier over the correct price of the work – Bouvier was allegedly secretly withholding part of the sale price in order to make some money on the transaction. Still, what Mr. Rubolovlev paid for No. 6 was a record for the American painter – $186 million! Since 2005, Rothko’s paintings have been a great success at auctions around the world.
Image via Wikipedia
Jackson Pollock - Number 17A
One half of a true art shopping spree undertaken by hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin in February 2016 is Jackson Pollock’s Number 17A, an oil on fiberboard and another example of drip painting. Pollock’s work was featured in a 1949 Life magazine article that helped make him a household name. Out of $500 million he spent on the artworks that day, Mr. Griffin gave $200 million on Pollock, which is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, of which he is a trustee, along with the other purchase you can see further down the list of most expensive art pieces ever sold. Mr. Griffin is obviously a fan of Abstract Expressionism and appreciates the impact the painting had at the moment of its making. Last year, he also donated $40 million to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and provided a new record for a Gerhard Richter painting – $46,4 million.
Image via theartstack
Paul Cezanne - The Card Players
One of the five paintings in The Card Players series, this work was belongs to Paul Cézanne’s final period. It depicts Provençal peasants playing cards and smoking their pipes, so focused and calm that many critics describe them as “human still lifes”. The other four versions of the painting can be found in institutions like the Musée d’Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as of April 2011, it belongs to the royal family of the tiny, oil-rich state of Qatar, the biggest single contemporary-art buyer in the world. It is surely of the most significant artworks of all time and as such it was bought for over $250 million from Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos, who rarely lent it and was constantly getting offers for it that weren’t good enough – until that one time.
Image via Wikipedia
Paul Gauguin - Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)
Speaking of Qatar, here’s another masterpiece which ended up in their hands after a shocking February 2015 private sale. Paul Gauguin’s 1982 When Will You Marry? is now the second most expensive art piece ever, with a price of some $300 million paid by the state-financed Qatar Museums, in particular Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani. A gem of Post-Impressionism, the painting depicts two young women in vivid colors and traditional native and colonial dresses, surrounded by the beautiful landscape of Tahiti, where Paul Gauguin traveled to escape “everything that is artificial and conventional” in Europe. Prior to the sale, the work was on long-term loan to the Kunstmuseum in Basel for more than sixty years.
Image via Wikipedia
Willem de Kooning - Interchange
Here it is, the very queen of the most expensive art ever sold and the other half of Ken Griffin’s legendary $500 million art purchase from September 2015. Willem de Kooning’s 1955 Interchange was priced at $300 million just like Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? and it represents a great example of New York-based Abstract Expressionism and the artist’s intention to depict the ugly of the new world, one trying to stand on its feet in the World War II aftermath. It originally sold for a record $20.68 million in 1989 against an estimate of $4-6 million, then also the highest price ever paid for a contemporary work at auction and a record for a living artist. The work had been sold at auction by the estate of Edgar J. Kauffman Jr., who had bought the painting in 1955 for $4,000. It too currently hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will stay for the time being.