It has been said that some art is “priceless” and pictures can be worth a thousand words—or so the cliches go—but when it comes to selling works of seemingly immeasurable value, some can garner staggering amounts when the gavel drops. Here, we explore the most expensive paintings sold at auction, from the chart-toppers to the jaw-droppers.
Most Expensive Paintings Ever Sold
1. Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, circa 1490–1500
Sold for: $450.3 million at Christie’s (November 15, 2017)
The world’s most expensive painting to sell at auction is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which sold for $450.3 million on November 15, 2017 at Christie’s. Shattering previous records and exceeding auction expectations, the sale underscored market demand for the artist’s rare auction appearances, and the competition among collectors to own a work of such caliber and distinction.
Prior to its sale at Christie’s, the painting attracted a myriad of owners and price tags over the years: from selling for £45 at Sotheby’s in 1958 to a $127.5 million purchase price for Russian billionaire Dmitry E. Rybolovlev in 2005, whose trust sold it at the 2017 auction. After its 2005 sale, years of work and research ensued to uncover its true identity. Due to being out of the public eye since 1958, it was somewhat of a salvage project—with an unknown history and hidden by numerous overpaints, it was long mistaken for a copy. Years of research pieced together its story, finally enabling its attribution to Leonardo da Vinci.
Despite its historical significance, this landmark sale brought forth conflicting opinions. Many thought of the sale as one of notoriety and brand recognition, rather than of appreciation and respect of the painting’s gravitas. The piece also underwent numerous conservation and cleaning efforts, which sparked conversation around how to classify the painting—how original is it?
2. Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger (“Version O”), 1955
Sold for: $179.4 million at Christie’s (May 11, 2015)
At Christie’s 2015 “Looking Forward to the Past” sale showcasing 20th-century art, Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (“Version O”) was estimated to take home $140 million by pre-auction speculations. After the bidding surpassed $120 million on the night of the sale, five bidders slowly drove the price forward, often by just $1 million at a time. Eventually, the painting was awarded to a phone bidder with Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international head of contemporary art, for $179.4 million. At the time, it was the highest price on record for an auctioned painting.
This piece is one of Picasso’s boldest and most notable from a series of paintings he produced between 1954 and 1955. It was in good condition at the time of sale, so it was a special find for anyone able to pay the price. Before the 2015 sale, it had last sold in November 1997 for $31.9 million to a collector from Saudi Arabia.
3. Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché, 1917–18
Sold for: $170.4 million at Christie’s (November 9, 2015)
In its debut appearance at auction in 2015, Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu couché (“reclining nude”) achieved the second-highest auction price for a painting at the time: $170.4 million. Bidding began at $75 million, which already surpassed Modigliani’s previous auction record of $70.7 million. The work ultimately sold to private Chinese collector Liu Yiqian. As one of Modigliani’s most notable paintings, it was produced in 1917 as part of a series of works credited today with the revitalization of the nude form in Modernist art.
4. Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), 1917–18
Sold for: $157.2 million at Sotheby’s (May 14, 2018)
Produced around the same time as the previous auction record, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) took the highest auction price in Sotheby’s history in 2018 with $157.2 million. Bidding for the piece started at $125 million and ultimately landed with the phone bidder with Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s co-head of Impressionist and Modern art. This and other nudes by Modigliani were strikingly bold and even considered scandalous when they were originally painted.
5. Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969
Sold for: $142.4 million at Christie’s (November 12, 2013)
A rare find during a post-war and contemporary auction held by Christie’s in 2013, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud achieved a purchase price of $142.4 million. The triptych was the subject of “fierce” bidding. Not only did it outperform Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which had sold for nearly $120 million at Sotheby’s the previous year, but it was also part of a landmark year for Christie’s. The auction grossed $691.6 million, which at the time was nearly $200 million more than its best-ever season.
6. Qi Baishi, Twelve Landscape Screens, 1925
Sold for: $140.8 million at Beijing Poly Auction (December 17, 2017)
The lofty price tag of Qi Baishi’s Twelve Landscape Screens wasn’t the only notable aspect of its sale in 2017. The selling price solidified Qi’s place in the art world as the first Chinese artist to have a work of art sell at auction for over $100 million. Qi executed the work in 1925 at the age of 62. In his notable style of using calligraphy and brush painting, it’s known as one of the most expressive pieces from his body of work. With its twelve landscape screens, it is also the largest piece he ever created.
7. Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893
Sold for: $119.9 million at Sotheby’s (May 2, 2012)
An important source of inspiration for Expressionism in the early 20th century, Edvard Munch’s The Scream has become one of the most iconic and recognizable images of our time (it even has its own emoji) and was the highest-selling painting at auction in 2012. Munch painted the piece in a collection of 22 works that were exhibited in Berlin in 1902, all representing unconventional topics for the time period. They ranged from love and loss to death and spirituality. This is one of four versions of The Scream, which Munch had initially titled Der Schrei der Natur (“The Scream of Nature”).
8. Pablo Picasso, Young Girl with a Flower Basket, 1905
Sold for: $115 million at Christie’s (May 8, 2018)
Pablo Picasso’s 1905 painting was part of the landmark sale of the collection of the late David and Peggy Rockefeller at Christie’s. Formerly owned by Gertrude Stein before it was acquired by the Rockefellers, Young Girl with a Flower Basket was the fourth painting by Picasso to sell for over $100 million at auction, making him the only artist with more than one piece to sell at that level. After the sale, the work went on loan at the Musee-D’Orsay until January 2019.
9. Claude Monet, Meules, 1890
Sold for: $110.7 million at Sotheby’s (May 14, 2019)
Sotheby’s 2019 auction of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York saw Claude Monet’s Meules achieve nearly twice its pre-sale estimate. It also surpassed Monet’s previous auction record for Nymphéas en fleur, which sold for $84.6 million in May 2018. Meules is part of Monet’s notable Haystacks series, one of the most recognizable from the artist’s oeuvre.
10. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982
Sold for: $110.5 million at Sotheby’s (May 18, 2017)
At the time it was sold, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 piece Untitled garnered the highest auction price for work of art by an American artist. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa was the winning bidder and the final purchase price nearly doubled Basquiat’s previous auction record from 2016 (which was also set by Maezawa). At the time of the 2017 auction, the work hadn’t been on view to the public in over 30 years. As such, the collector planned to loan it to numerous museums after the sale, which included the Brooklyn Museum — the painting’s first stop in 2018.
11. Pablo Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932
Sold for: $106.5 million at Christie’s (May 4, 2010)
From a 1932 series of paintings of his mistress and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter, Pablo Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust broke the world record for any work of art sold at auction in 2010. The Impressionist piece was in a private Los Angeles collection and has been on long-term loan to Tate Modern in London since its sale.
12. Andy Warhol, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), 1963
Sold for: $105.4 million at Sotheby’s (November 13, 2013)
A signed piece from Andy Warhol’s Death and Disasters series, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) became the highest-selling piece at auction by the artist. The series depicts the Pop artist’s engagement with more serious subject matter: this piece utilizes silkscreen and spray paint to depict a gruesome car crash scene, a deviation from the soup can paintings that landed Warhol on the map.
13. Pablo Picasso, Garçon à la pipe, 1905
Sold for: $104.2 million at Sotheby’s (May 5, 2004)
At the age of 25, Pablo Picasso painted this piece of a Parisian boy. At the time of its sale for $70 million at Sotheby’s in 2004, it was the most expensive piece of art sold at this particular auction. While Picasso has become one of the best-known names in the art world, Garçon à la pipe may not be recognizable as his style at first glance. Painted by a young Picasso, it doesn’t reflect the signature style and approach that he became associated with, but early explorations of Cubist principles can be seen in the work.
14. Roy Lichtenstein, Nurse, 1964
Sold for: $95.4 million at Christie’s (November 9, 2015)
In 2015, Roy Lichtenstein’s Nurse became the most expensive work by the artist ever sold at auction. The 1964 composition was painted on a four-foot square canvas and had previously garnered $1.7 million at Sotheby’s in 1995. The Pop artist was known for his bold paintings with comic book-style themes.
15. Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar au Chat, 1941
Sold for: $95.2 million at Sotheby’s (May 3, 2006)
Picasso depicted his Parisian lover in Dora Maar au Chat, a 1941 portrait that was one of the largest of his paintings featuring the sitter. The bold colors and angles were expressions of an emotional era: the tension of World War II and Nazi-occupied Paris were often sources of inspiration for artists. In 2006, the piece sold for the second-highest price ever paid at auction for a painting.
16. Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929
Sold for: $91.9 million at Christie’s (November 13, 2018)
As the most expensive work of pre-war American art ever sold, Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey is arguably the artist’s most iconic painting. The piece showcases a period of American history in which society was evolving at a rapid pace: chop suey restaurants were popular luncheonettes for the working class in the mid-1920s. The subjects of the painting represent a snapshot of American life as it changed at a dramatic pace. The women dining together in broad daylight symbolize the evolving role of women in the American workplace and their newfound independence beyond the domestic roles they were previously assigned.
17. David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972
Sold for: $90.3 million at Christie’s (November 15, 2018)
When this piece by David Hockney was offered in November 2018 by Christie’s, it became the most expensive painting by a living artist ever sold at auction. The painting was born from two photographs in Hockney’s studio: one of a figure swimming underwater and another of someone looking at an object on the ground. To achieve the composition in Portrait of an Artist, Hockney blended the two images. After working and reworking the piece numerous times, the initial work was destroyed, until the artist returned to the concept again in April of 1972, and the piece we know today was born.
18. Mark Rothko, Orange, Red, Yellow, 1961
Sold for: $86.9 million at Christie’s (May 8, 2012)
Ultimately selling for more than twice its pre-sale estimate, Mark Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow set a record for post-war contemporary art at Christie’s in 2012. It also surpassed the previous record for the sale of a Rothko painting, set by White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) in 2007.
19. Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1976
Sold for: $86.3 million at Sotheby’s (May 14, 2008)
One of Bacon’s most notable and impactful works, Triptych, 1976 explores a variety of themes he returned to over the course of his career—such as crime, punishment, remorse, and human suffering. Comprised of three oil and pastel paintings on canvas, the work features bold colors and abstract shapes, and draws upon classical Greek mythology with reference to Prometheus, who was notoriously cunning and was said to have made the first man out of clay.
20. Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition, 1916
Sold for: $85.8 million at Christie’s (May 15, 2018)
This piece by Kazimir Malevich was described by Christie’s as “boundary-pushing” and was a shocking development when it first appeared in the early 20th century. Painted in 1916, Malevich’s Suprematist Composition was one of the first of its kind to suggest a state of more abstract existence.
21. Claude Monet, Nymphéas en fleur, circa 1914–1917
Sold for: $84.7 million at Christie’s (May 8, 2018)
Claude Monet focused on depicting scenes from nature for much of his career, and spent his last two decades painting the water lily pond at his home in rural France. Numerous canvases came from his studio to encapsulate the magic of the pond, and the Nymphéas series saw the emergence of some of his most notable works: water lily compositions in a far grander scale than his earlier works, which had been depicted in a more delicate manner. The sale of this piece in 2018 set an auction record for Monet.
22. Barnett Newman, Black Fire I, 1961
Sold for: $84.2 million at Christie’s (May 13, 2014)
Barnett Newman’s Black Fire I is from a series he created with black pigment on exposed canvas from 1958 to 1966. Championed as having a “Zen-like simplicity,” this work marries the elegance of pared-down lines with the grandeur of scale and proportion. The sale of this painting at Christie’s 2014 auction of Post-War and Contemporary Art in New York set a world auction record for the artist.
23. Vincent van Gogh, “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” 1890
Sold for: $82.5 million at Christie’s (May 15, 1990)
One of the most iconic paintings ever produced by Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet was made in the last few months of the artist’s life. The portrait depicts a homeopathic doctor who cared for the artist in his final months. Many blamed the doctor for his death due to poor care, but just before his death, the artist claimed otherwise. The controversy surrounding the painting and the artist’s legacy made it even more notorious (and high-profile) at auction.
24. Andy Warhol, Triple Elvis, 1963
Sold for: $81.9 million at Christie’s (November 12, 2014)
Known for his innovative Pop art interpretations of the world, Andy Warhol’s Triple Elvis was one of his most iconic depictions of celebrity and pop culture. Using a photograph of Elvis Presley from the film “Flaming Star,” Warhol manipulated it to create a work that became synonymous with the singer as time went on and one of Warhol’s best-known pieces.
25. Mark Rothko. No. 10, 1958
Sold for: $81.9 million at Christie’s (May 13, 2015)
Painted in 1958, Mark Rothko’s No. 10 features a palette of red, yellow, pink, and brown oil and pigment on canvas. The abstract artist was known during this period for his exploration of color on canvas that created swaths of varying hues. One of numerous Rothkos to realize a significant amount at auction, this piece achieved nearly $82 million during Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in 2015.
26. Claude Monet, Meule, 1890
Sold for: $81.4 million at Christie’s (November 16, 2016)
In near-perfect condition, Claude Monet’s oil painting Meule sold for just over $81 million at auction in November 2016. Monet painted it as the final work in a collection of 25 similar paintings, and the work is emblematic of his signature style and iconic subject matter. After its sale, it was the most expensive piece of art to sell at auction worldwide in 2016.
27. Vincent van Gogh, Laboureur dans un champ, circa 1889–1890
Sold for: $81.3 million at Christie’s (November 13, 2017)
Painted during his one-year stay in an asylum, Vincent van Gogh’s Laboureur dans un champ exhibits a ploughman working in his field. It fell just short of the artist’s previous auction record, but still vastly outperformed its pre-sale estimate. Painted in the last year of his life, it became one of his best-known works.
28. Henri Matisse, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, 1923
Sold for: $80.8 million at Christie’s (May 8, 2018)
Another notable sale from the Rockefeller Collection at Christie’s in 2015, Henri Matisse’s Odalisque couchée aux magnolias set an auction record for the artist. Including buyer’s premium, it surpassed its pre-sale estimate of $70 million. The nude showcases his experimentation with color and dimension.
29. Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards, 1980
Sold for: $80.8 million at Christie’s (May 13, 2014)
A rare triptych, this piece depicts a bar manager from the East End of London that became a close and esteemed counterpart of Francis Bacon. The three frames of the work showcase John Edwards in a dream-like space depicted in sweeping brush strokes and soft shades. Sold to an anonymous buyer for just over $80 million at Christie’s in New York, Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards helped solidify Bacon’s place in the auction ranks.
30. Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, 1919
Sold for: $80.5 million at Christie’s (June 24, 2008)
At the time of its sale at Christie’s in London, Claude Monet’s Le Bassin aux Nymphéas nearly doubled the previous auction record seen by the artist. One of Monet’s numerous depictions of the water lily pond at his home in Giverny, this work is representative of the final years of his life in which he captured the ethereal nature of his gardens in oil on canvas.
31. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Au Moulin de la Galette, 1876
Sold for: $78.1 million at Sotheby’s (May 17, 1990)
In 1990, Renoir’s exuberant portrayal of an open-air dance hall in Paris far surpassed its estimate of $40–$50 million. It came at a monumental time for art auctions as well: just two days prior, Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet had set its own record at Christie’s. Renoir’s Impressionist masterpiece was the first of its caliber by the artist to reach auction, and far surpassed the artist’s previous auction record of $17.7 million in 1989.