The best results in the Modern art segment in 2023

[09 Jan 2024]

Picasso, Klimt, Bacon, Rothko, Kandinsky, Magritte and Modigliani… the market for Modern art is undeniably the segment most likely to trigger the most spectacular auction results, and the only segment capable of generating no less than 16 results above 100 million dollars (in 2023) for works by the most famous artists born between 1860 and 1920. First and foremost, Pablo Picasso, whose works have, in total, generated six 9-digit results, including one hammered in 2023 for Femme à la montre (1932). Another work that fetched over $100 million last year was of course Klimt’s Lady with a Fan.

Two portraits of women exceed $100 million at Sotheby’s

The most expensively-sold Modern canvas in 2023, Pablo Picasso’s Femme à la montre (Woman with watch), is a work from 1932, a pivotal period in the artist’s life and production. The painting portrays Marie-Thérèse Walter, with whom the Spanish painter was very much in love, and she is depicted with plenty of sensuality and bright colors. Fetching $139.4 million on 8 November, it generated the second highest auction result ever hammered for a work by Picasso. Woman with watch was long the centerpiece of Emily Fisher Landau’s collection since she acquired the painting in 1968 from the collector Ernst Beyeler, who had himself acquired it directly from Picasso’s studio in Mougins in 1966. Top-notch provenance for a major work in the artist’s production, the year 1932 being so significant that the Tate Modern in London and the Picasso Museum in Paris both dedicated special exhibitions to it in 2017 (Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy and, in Paris, Picasso 1932 année érotique).

The second top-selling Modern artwork in 2023 was Gustav Klimt’s Lady with a Fan painted in 1917, a year before the painter’s death. In this square-format canvas, Klimt fully expresses his fascination with Chinese and Japanese art and culture. He was particularly fond of sumptuous silk kimonos and Chinese robes, and his home was full of beautiful objects from the East. Asian pictorial richness masterfully animates this painting, which happens to be one of Klimt’s most beautiful works but also his very last painting. It was in the hands of a private collector who bought it in 1994 for a little over $10.5 million from Sotheby’s New York. After keeping this treasure for almost thirty years, he sold it via Sotheby’s in London for $108.39 million to Patti Wong, founder of Patti Wong & Associates, bidding on behalf of a Hong Kong collector. It was the highest price ever hammered in Europe for an artwork – and – a new auction record for Gustav Klimt.

Gustav Klimt’s Lady with a Fan, 1917

Klimt, again… and again…

A work by Gustav KLIMT also generated the year’s third best auction result in the Modern art segment: his landscape Island in the Attersee, a superb canvas depicting a view with Impressionist colors and touches, a similar version of which is kept at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. This work, produced around 1901, was the centerpiece of Gustav Klimt’s very first exhibition in the United States (in 1959 at Otto Kallir’s St. Etienne gallery) where a private American collector acquired it. On 16 May 2023, this superb landscape was sold to an Asian collector for $53.2 million. The hundred or so works sold under Klimt’s signature in 2023 (including five paintings) placed the artist among the year’s 10 top-selling artists in the world.

Francis Bacon: $52 million for Figure in Movement (1976)

At the end of the year, on 9 November 2023, Christie’s offered a major painting by Francis BACON in New York, Figure in Movement, painted in 1976, five years after the tragic death of his lover and muse, George Dyer, just before the opening of the Bacon retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. Figure in Movement is a cathartic work in response to Dyer’s death: on a black background absorbing all light, two characters struggle, bend and twist in all directions, on the verge of dislocation. In the chaos of these moving figures, Bacon’s despair and suffering combine with his passion for his companion who died so tragically and prematurely.

Described by critic David Sylvester as Bacon’s best single (as opposed to dip- or triptych) large canvas painted between 1970-1976, Figure in Movement is an exceptional work which has often been exhibited, notably during landmark Bacon retrospectives at the Tate Gallery in London, the Correr Museum in Venice and the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris. But the work, which has remained in the same family since its acquisition, had never been offered publicly before last fall. It is now the fourth most expensive Francis Bacon painting ever sold at auction (excluding his triptychs).

Annual auction turnover on Modern Art (copyright