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The Most Expensive Artworks Ever Sold at Auction
Going, going, gone.
Art Expert 24 May 2022

On May 9th of this year, it took Shot Sage Blue Marilyn under 4 minutes to reach a record-breaking $195 million under the hammer at Christie’s in New York. $195 million.

This mammoth sale made the 1964 painting the most expensive work of 20th Century art ever sold, and knocked Picasso from the post. The work surpassed Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 Untitled (which went for a measly $110.5 million) to earn the title of the highest auction price ever reached for an American artist.

There have been only a handful of times that paintings have been purchased for over $190 million, but this has only happened one other time at auction. Those other sales (which include works by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock) were made privately, so feel a little less exciting.

So we’ve decided to take a look back on the highest-valued work ever to go under the hammer, to see what all the fuss is about…

First Place: Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (c.1495)
Price: $450.3 million
Year: 2017
Auctioneer: Christie’s

The sale history of Salvator Mundi is a wild one: it changed hands many times since its creation at the turn of the 16th Century, sustained various degrees of damage, and ended up being sold at auction in 1958 – for £45.

Second Place: Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964)
Price: $195 million
Year: 2022
Auctioneer: Christie’s

The most recent addition to the list, Warhol’s 40 x 40 inch Marilyn is one of his five “shot” paintings which were – literally – shot at by the performance artist Dorothy Podber in The Factory. The work was made two years after Marilyn Monroe’s death and is based on a promo photo of the actress from the film Niagra.

Third Place: Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (1955)
Price: $179.4 million
Year: 2015
Auctioneer: Christie’s

At the time of its sale, Les Femmes d’Alger was the highest selling work ever sold at auction. This work – Version O – is one of 15 variations Picasso created in 1954 and 1955, inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Alger (made in 1834).

Fourth Place: Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu couché (1917-18)
Price: $170.4 million
Year: 2015
Auctioneer: Christie’s

The 2015 Christie’s auction was the first ever time that Nu couché had gone under the hammer. The bidding began at $75 million which was already $5 million higher than Modigliani’s previous record.

Fifth Place: Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (1917-18)
Price: $157.2 million
Year: 2018
Auctioneer: Sotheby’s

Another win for Modigliani! This work was the highest ever auction price at Sotheby’s when it went under the hammer in 2018. What was it with the late 2010s and Modigliani-fever?

Sixth Place: Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969)
Price: $142.4 million
Year: 2013
Auctioneer: Christie’s

Part of Christie’s highest grossing auction (landing a whopping $691.6 million in total), this triptych by Bacon was – at sale – the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. The painting was perhaps made more appealing because of its featuring Lucian Freud – ultimate frenemy of Bacon.

Seventh Place: Qi Baishi’s Twelve Landscape Screens (1925)
Price: $140.8 million
Year: 2017
Auctioneer: Beijing Poly Auction


Image: Poly Beijing via Artnet News

This work is the only art work in the world by a Chinese artist to sell at auction for over $100 million and was made by Qi when he was 62 years old. The set of 12 ink-brush panels is also the highest price ever paid for work by a Chinese artist.

Eighth Place: Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895)
Price: $119.9 million
Year: 2012
Auctioneer: Sotheby’s

It took The Scream 12 minutes to become (at the time) the most expensive work of art to ever sell at auction. Following a brief pause at the $99 million mark, the audience at the Sotheby’s auction burst into applause after the lot surpassed $100 million.

Ninth Place: Pablo Picasso’s Young Girl with a Flower Basket (1905)
Price: $115 million
Year: 2018
Auctioneer: Christie’s

Young Girl with a Flower Basket has been owned by two famous names: firstly Gertrude Stein and then the Rockefeller family. It is one of 5 works by Picasso to sell at auction for over $100 million.

Tenth Place: Claude Monet’s Meules (1890)
Price: $110.7 million
Year: 2019
Auctioneer: Sotheby’s

At auction, Meules reached almost double its estimate price, and surpassed Monet’s previous auction peak (Nymphéas en fleur which sold the year before) by over $25 million. It took just eight minutes for the battle for this Impressionist masterpiece to be won.

Author: Verity Babbs

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