Articles and Features

The Most Expensive
Paintings of the Decade. Part 1: 2010 – 2014

Most expensive paintings
Paul Cezanne, The Card Players 1892–93

As we come to the end of a decade we take a look at one of the key characteristics of the art world in the 2010s, that of the tendency for ever-increasing sums of money to change hands for seminal art masterpieces. Since the information is in the public domain, we often hear about the acquisition of trophy works at the glittering evening auctions of New York and London, but there are probably an equal number of privately brokered transactions taking place discreetly behind closed doors. The one benefit of auction, and a reason why this method of sale is often chosen for the most desirable artworks (from a market stance), is that it a creates a highly anticipated and charged sale environment which, in turn, engenders fierce competition amongst bidders, whose determination to become the winner often drives prices ever higher.

Back in the late 1980s the art world began its trajectory to its position as the most highly prized of all luxury markets. Eye-watering sums were paid for iconic masterpieces by Vincent Van Gogh that made the whole world take note. In 1987 Van Gogh’s Irises became the most expensive work of art ever sold when it was auctioned for $53m to Australian tycoon Alan Bond. It subsequently transpired that Sotheby’s had loaned Bond $27m, or half of the acquisition price, which he was unable to pay, resulting in his subsequent sale of the work to the Getty in Los Angeles. If this byzantine transaction makes the eventual price of the work unclear, there was no such doubt a couple of years later in the Spring of 1989, when Van Gogh’s ’Sunflowers’ sold to Japanese Insurance magnate Yasua Goto for $39m.

Here is our list of the most expensive artworks sold, year by year, of the past decade.

2010. Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958, $110m

The Most Expensive Paintings, Castelli, Flag
Leo Castelli with ‘Flag’ in his gallery, 1960

Sold by Jean-Christophe Castelli, Leo Castelli’s son, in a private sale to hedge fund principal Steven Cohen. The above image from 1960 shows the painting with Leo Castelli, the legendary gallerist who represented Johns and who also accumulated incredible holdings of many of his star artists’ works, including key masterpieces by Warhol, Rauschenberg, Twombly and Stella.

Most expensive paintings, Picasso
Pablo Picasso, Nude, green leaves and bust, 1932, $106.5m

Picasso’s portrait of his mistress Marie-Thérese Walter from 1932 became the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction for $106.5m

Most Expensive Paintings, Andry Warhol
Andy Warhol, Men in her Life, 1962, $64m

Sold by auction at Phillips for $64m by the Mugrabi family, reputed to have the largest collection of Warhol’s in the World numbering some 800 works.

2011. Paul Cezanne, The Card Players, 1892–93, $250m

Most Expensive Paintings of the Decade, Cezanne
Paul Cezanne, The Card Players 1892–93

Paul Cezanne, The Card Players 1892–93, Oil on canvas. Sold by Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos to the State of Qatar in a private sale for a reputed $250m. The Card Players is one of five paintings with the same subject, painted during the final period of Cezanne’s working life, and considered the key stylistic bridge between Impressionism and Cubism. It was the only version in private hands, the others being in the Musée d’Orsay, the Metropolitan Museum, the Barnes Foundation and the Courtauld Institute.

Most expensive paintings, Baishi
Qi Baishi, Eagle Standing on Pine Tree, 1946, $65.5m.

This was the first milestone of Chinese modern art achieving big prices at auction. Formerly in the collection of Chiang Kai-shek, this work achieved a new record for a work of Chinese modern art at auction and heralded a new era of major prices for this category.

Most expensive paintings
Clyfford Still, 1949-A-No.1, 1949, Oil on canvas $61m.

An early Ab Ex masterpiece of the reclusive and mysterious Still’s oeuvre. Sold by the city of Denver at auction through Sotheby’s, in order to fund further acquisitions for the city’s museum.

2012. Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1895, $120m

Most Expensive Paintings, The Scream
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1895,

Sold by Petter Olsen of the Norwegian shipping family by way of public auction at Sotheby’s in NYC, to American private equity billionaire Leon Black. Four versions exist of this iconic images – one of the seminal early modern art works made before the twentieth century had even begun, and an image that has begun synonymous with the existential anxiety of the human condition in the Twentieth Century. This version is executed in pastel. There are two painted versions, both of which have been stolen.

Amadeo Modigiliani, Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion, 1917, $118m.

One of the few occasions when New York hedge fund titan Steven Cohen is listed as a seller rather than a buyer. Sold to a Russian billionaire based in Monaco, Dmitry Rybolovlev, also the owner of the AS Monaco Football Club, and brokered by Swiss businessmen Yves Bouvier

Most expensive paintings, Rothko
Mark Rothko, Orange, Red, Yellow, 1961, $87m.

Sold at auction from the Estate of textile manufacturer David Pincus, who with his wife Geraldine, assembled one of the more notable collections of Abstract Expressionist paintings in the mid century period.

2013. Gustav Klimt, Wasserschlangen II, 1904-7, $184m.

Most Expensive Paintings of the Decade, Gustav Klimt, Wasserschlangen
Gustav Klimt, Wasserschlangen II, 1904-7

A bumper year for outrageous prices, 2013 is topped off by this Klimt masterpiece. Dmitry Rybolovlev was also the buyer of this work as he sought to assemble one of the greatest privately held collections of early modern masterpieces in the world. An early depiction of same-sex relationships, some say it was a portrait of a lesbian relationship disguised as mythological figures.

Picasso, La Reve, 1932, $155m.

One of the most famous of many works portraying Picasso’s 22 year old lover Marie-Therese Walter. Sold by Las Vegas casino billionaire Steve Wynn to Steve Cohen for $155m, but not without a lengthy drama. In 2006 Wynn had already agreed to sell the work to Steve Cohen for $139m, but while Wynn was showing the painting to his friends he put his right elbow through the canvas, causing a significant tear. After a $90,000 repair, the painting was re-valued at $85 million. Wynn filled a claim to recover the $54 million perceived loss from his Lloyd’s of London. When the insurers refused, Wynn sued them. The case was settled and Cohen eventually bought the painting from Wynn in 2013 for $155 million.

Most Expensive Paintings, Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (triptych), 1969, $142.4m. .

Introduced in London by fellow painter Graham Sutherland in 1945, Bacon and Freud, the two great pillars of figuration in modern British art, began as rivals and became close friends. They painted each other numerous times. When sold, this triptych of Freud became the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. Acquired by Elaine Wynn, the former wife of Steve, and the co-founder of Wynn Resorts. 

2014. Paul Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When will you marry?), 1892, $210m.

The Most Expensive Paintings, Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When will you marry?), 1892

On loan to the Kunstmuseum in Basel Switzerland for almost half a century, the work was actually owned by Swiss businessman and art collector Rudolf Staechelin. After travelling to Tahiti for the first time in 1891, the work is considered one of the greatest of his masterpieces from Gauguin time spent there. It was acquired by the State of Qatar in a private sale arranged with Staechelin’s heirs.

Rothko, No.6, (Violet, Green and Red), $186m.

Other notable sales of the year include the market stalwarts Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, both of whom have several works sold in the rarefied air above $50m. Rothko’s No.6, (Violet, Green and Red) remains among the handful of most expensive artworks of all time, selling for $186m to Dmitry Rybolovlev by Yves Bouvier. However, this work is one of a number implicated in the infamous Bouvier Affair. Rybolovlev learnt that Bouvier had actually bought the painting (rather than simply acting as a dealer) for around $80m before selling it on to him for €140m. He subsequently launched lawsuits in multiple countries to freeze the assets of Bouvier, claiming that he had been defrauded through cost misrepresentation and overcharged by up to $1bn.

Most Expensive Paintings, Newman
Barnett Newman, Black Fire I, 1961, $84m.

Barnett Newman, Black Fire I, 1961, oil on canvas. This work was sold by an a private collection for $84m at a Christie’s NY auction. A masterpiece by one of the great Abstract Expressionist artists, the work is notable for being emblematic of Newman’s ‘zips’ but also for heralding in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field Painting.

Relevant sources to learn more

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