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Most Expensive Paintings of the Past Decade.
Part II: 2015-2019

There was a time that important and iconic artworks were described as ‘priceless’. Possibly given to mean that inherent cultural value made any market price impossible to either contemplate or apply, or that the scarcity and inelastic supply of such treasures made market value incalculable. In recent years, the art market has proven beyond doubt that whilst the word ‘priceless’ remains in circulation, the actual concept was dismantled long ago. Wealthy buyers the world over have shown, more than ever, their preparedness to put eye-watering prices on anything, none more so than the greatest artworks in history—as we come to the end of a decade we take a look at our second instalment of the most expensive paintings bought and sold over the past ten years, boasting the most valuable works of art ever sold.

2015. Willem de Kooning, Interchange, 1955, c.$300m

most expensive paintings, 2015, Kooning
Willem de Kooning, Interchange, 1955

2015 boasts an incredible sale, made by the entertainment mogul David Geffen to Chicago hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin. Long considered one of the high watermarks of Abstract Expressionism and among the greatest masterpieces of De Kooning’s first mature, fully abstract period, the painting had already been the highest ever priced contemporary art work for a living artist at auction in 1989 when it sold at auction at Sotheby’s in NY for $20m.

Jackson Pollock, Number 17A, 1948. $200m.

Part of the same sale as de Kooning’s Interchange from Geffen to Griffin, a ‘package’ deal of half a billion dollars, thus valuing the Pollock, one of the key works of the mature drip painting period, at a cool $200m.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, 1634, $160m

A pair of full length wedding portraits of wealthy Amsterdam patrons by Rembrandt from the Baroque Dutch Golden Age. Somewhat unusually the paintings show their subjects as full length figures, and had been kept together since their creation. Formerly owned by the Rothschild Family, they became jointly owned by both the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre after each institution managed to contribute 50% of the acquisition cost.

2016. Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II, 1912 $150m

most expensive paintings, 2016, Klimt
Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II,

The subject of the portrait, Adele Bloch Bauer, was a wealthy member of Viennese salon society, a close friend of Klimt’s and the wife of Ferdinand Bloch Bauer an industrialist and patron of the artist. She is the only subject who was painted twice by Klimt. Seized by the Nazis during the war, it was subject to a protracted ownership battle, eventually being returned to Bloch Bauer’s niece and heir, Maria Altmann, but only after the Austrian museum that refused to relinquish them was legally compelled to do so. The work was eventually sold by Altmann at auction in 2006 for $80m, where the buyer was Oprah Winfrey, who subsequently sold it on to an unidentified Chiense buyer in 2016 for $150m.

Claude Monet, Meule, 1891, $81.5m

Monet’s ‘Meule’ series, known as the ‘haystacks’ in English is one of the most iconic series of his paintings, and emblematic of his incredible attention to the changing light conditions of plein air panting. An almost exhaustive series of 25 paintings showing the haystacks in all times of day, weather and seasons, the individual works of the group are core representations of Impressionism, and mainstays of many of the world’s leading museum collections.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXV, 1977 $66.3m

From the artist’s body of work during the 1970s, a period of work that has gained huge popularity in the last decade. The 1970s was decade when Abstract Expressionism was mostly overlooked and considered largely obsolete, but de Kooning prefigured his late ‘ribbon’ paintings with the works and led the way for the explosion in expressive painting during the 1980s. A masterpiece that smashed through its pre-sale of estimate of around $40m.

2017. Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c.1500, $450m

most expensive paintings, 21017, Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c.1500

To date the most expensive painting of all time, the auction of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi was a salesroom sensation and front page new the world over when it went under the hammer in 2017. Sold by renowned Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev to the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia, it was ‘rediscovered’ in 2005. Long considered a copy and a mess of bad restoration and overpainting, the work was acquired by a consortium of dealers in 2005 for the princely sum of $10,000. After a lengthy restoration process and substantial scholarship the work was declared an original da Vinci. Since there are fewer than 20 known works by Leonardo in existence, this being the only one to remain in a private collection is the key driver for this extraordinary price. In a further twist, the painting was excluded from the blockbuster 2019 Leonardo show at the Louvre because of lingering doubts over its authenticity—to this day experts remain divided.

Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece 1962, $165m

A Classic early Lichtenstein that ticks all the boxes for the most sought after works by the Pop Master—a comic book frame, the artist’s signature bendy dots and a speech bubble text. Not only that the work was included in the artist’s first ever solo exhibition at the fabled Ferus gallery in Los Angeles, and better yet, references the art world in the subject matter, adding a knowing and amusing slice of irony to the work’s content and message. The work was owned Agnes Gund, the long time President of the Board of Trustees of MoMA, and hung over the mantelpiece of her NYC residence for decades. With such an iconic work, and with such a prestigious provenance, it is no surprise that Hedge Funder Steve Cohen paid such a steep price for this trophy.

Qi Baishi, Twelve Landscape Screens, 1925, $141m

Another masterpiece by the noted Chinese artist, famed for his whimsical watercolours that further evolved the classic Chinese calligraphic tradition. The world was stunned in 2017 when this work, the largest known piece by the artist, defied expectations and catapulted the artist into the rarefied ‘$100m club’. Sold at auction in Beijing to an unidentified bidder after frenzied bidding, the work is indicative of the market trend that sees Chinese artwork overwhelmingly bought and sold within the country, with Chinese painting and and calligraphy representing around 80 percent of that market.

2018. Amadeo Modigliani, Nu Couché (sur la côté gauche), 1917, $157m

most expensive paintings, 2018, Modigliani
Amadeo Modigliani, Nu Couché (sur la côté gauche), 1917

Made in the most sought after period of the late nineteen teens, after Modigliani shifted his practice from sculpture to the almost exclusive painting of the of the female nude, Nu couché is part of a prized series of nude paintings, produced between 1916 and 1919, that caused a scandal when they were first shown in Paris. When exhibited in Berthe Weill’s gallery, for what would be the only one-man exhibition that Modigliani experienced during his lifetime, a sizable crowd outside raised the curiosity of the police, who shut down the show after two days. By January 1920 Modigliani was dead from meningitis, and a career that went nowhere during his 35 year lifespan was set to take off posthumously, reaching today’s incredible levels for one of early modernism’s most iconic artists. Sold by the powerful Nahmad family at auction. At Sotheby’s in NY.

Pablo Picasso, Young Girl with a Flower basket, 1905, $115m

Young Girl with a flower basket is a first rate example of a work from Picasso’s rose period, a key transitional phase for Picasso—at the outset of 1905 he was a destitute bohemian but by the end of 1906 he was becoming well established and well on his way to his stellar career. The impeccable provenance, often a key element to underpin a big price, includes Gertrude Stein, MoMA and David and Peggy Rockefeller.

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929, $92m

Chop Suey is a key painting by Hopper and the achiever of a record price for the artist. Even though the work depicts two subjects together in a restaurant the familiar feeling of isolation of Hopper’s most famed works is strongly pervasive. The art deco period scene and the dramatic effects of lighting are also key components of Hopper’s best works. Owned by Barney Ebsworth the work was originally promised to the Seattle Art Museum, but on the occasion of his death ownership transferred to his heirs who instead elected to sell the work.

2019. Claude Monet, Meules, 1890, $110m

most expensive paintings, Monet
Claude Monet, Meules, 1890

Another of Monet’s ‘haystacks’ works, the present example is a more developed and fuller example than the similar work sold in 2016 shown above. Depicting the similar pinks, purples and elongated shadows of a sunset glow, this example is one of the more fully rendered landscapes in the fabled series. The work was originally acquired from one of the most influential galleries in the history of modern art, Monet’s Parisian dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. After a lengthy bidding battle consisting of at least eight bidders and continuing for almost ten minutes, the work was eventually hammered down at double its presale estimate to hearty applause in the auction salesroom, becoming the most expensive work of art sold in 2019.

most expensive paintings, Hockney
David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures), $80m

Hockney’s paintings of the California lifestyle became one of the defining idioms of figurative painting in the 60s and 70s. The landscapes of the Hollywood Hills, Pacific Ocean of Malibu and swaying palms all became synonymous with his works of this period. But transcending all these motifs were Hockney’s depictions of dappled sunlight on the rippling surface of azure blue swimming pools—his unerring ability to capture light and motion in his otherwise flat swathes of color being the most remarkable characteristic. The current example boasts an archetypal depiction, but also evokes the complexity of human relationships. Owned by British ex-pat billionaire Joe Lewis, a Bahamian resident, the sale of the work for a correctly estimated and predicted $80m became the most valuable work by a living artist ever sold at auction wen it sold at Christie’s in NY.

most expensive paintings, Ruscha
Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2, 1964, $53m

An early example of Ruscha’s text paintings, a body of work which made the artist one of the most innovative of the 1960s and a key figure in both west coast pop art and an early precursor of conceptual art. With this innovation he more or less invented a genre of work all by himself—paintings whose only ‘image’ consists of words and phrases. Hurting the Word Radio #2 was first exhibited at Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery in 1964, a venue that had swiftly established itself as a hotbed of Pop art. Two years earlier, Ferus had staged the first ever show of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. In November the work sold for $53m, also at Christie’s in NY, marking a new auction record for the artist. 

Relevant sources to learn more

See the most expensive paintings of the decade part I