Top 10: The world’s most expensive works of art

[11 Oct 2013]


Friday is Top day! Every other Friday, Artprice publishes a theme-based auction ranking. This week: the world’s ten most expensive works of art.

Artprice takes a look at the top-selling works in auction history, just a few weeks before new records are likely to be set at the major New York sales. They may not break into the world’s top 10, but they are sure to cause a stir in post-war and contemporary art.

The world’s most expensive works were all produced by European artists during the Impressionist and post-war periods. Surrounded by luminaries such as Pablo Picasso (with three works in the top 10), Edvard Munch, Alberto Giacometti, Gustav Klimt, Francis Bacon, Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet, American artist Mark Rothko is the only non-European to make the list. We should perhaps mention that the Chinese art market is still a little too young to compete with these colossi of the art world.

Top 10 : the world’s ten most expensive works of art.

Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Edvard MUNCH $107,000,000 The scream (1895) 05/02/2012 (Sotheby’s NY)
2 Pablo PICASSO $95,000,000 Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) 05/04/2010 (Christie’s NY)
3 Pablo PICASSO $93,000,000 Garçon à la pipe (1905) 05/05/2004 (Sotheby’s NY)
4 Alberto GIACOMETTI $92,521,600 L’homme qui marche I (1960) 02/03/2010 (Sotheby’s LONDON)
5 Pablo PICASSO $85,000,000 Dora Maar au chat (1941) 05/03/2006 (Sotheby’s NY)
6 Gustav KLIMT $78,500,000 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) 11/08/2006 (Christie’s NY)
7 Mark ROTHKO $77,500,000 Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) 05/08/2012 (Christie’s NY)
8 Francis BACON $77,000,000 “Triptych ” (1976) 05/14/2008 (Sotheby’s NY)
9 Vincent VAN GOGH $75,000,000 Portrait du Docteur Gachet () 05/15/1990 (Christie’s NY)
10 Claude MONET $71,846,600 Le bassin aux nymphéas (1919) 06/24/2008 (Christie’s LONDON)


Number 1: The Scream Edvard Munch
The world’s most expensive artwork is the only drawing in this Top 10 and the only work in auction history to achieve a hammer price in excess of $ 100 million. It is one of four versions of The Scream produced by Edvard MUNCH (1895, 79 cm x 59 cm), and the only version that is still in circulation on the market. It was auctioned on 2 May 2012 at Sotheby’s New York with an undisclosed estimate. It is not only a reworking of one of Edvard Munch’s iconic themes, but one of the strongest subjects in the history of art offered by Sotheby’s. Its sale price of $107 million ($119,922,500 million including buyer’s premium) is a testament to how a work’s artistic tension can take precedence over the traditional hierarchy of genres in which oils on canvas have tended to be valued more highly than pastels on cardboard. Once a work is declared to be iconic, that is to say, a critical link in the history of art, it opens the floodgates to million-dollar sales and estimates cease to have much meaning. This phenomenon began in 1990 with works by Van Gogh and Renoir that exceeded their estimates by more than $20 million.

Impressionism is dethroned by the 20th century
1990 is a year that is etched in our memories because of the sales of Impressionist works to various Japanese investors, particularly businessman Ryoei Saito. Within the space of just 3 days, Saito became the owner of two masterpieces, beginning with the ttp://”>Portrait du Docteur Gachet by Vincent VAN GOGH. This work came into his hands at Christie’s New York on 15 May 1990 for the sum of $75 million ($82.5 million including buyer’s premium), exceeding its estimate by $25 million. This oil on canvas measuring 66 x 57 cm became the most expensive painting in the world at that time. There are two versions of this portrait, which was painted in Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890. The second can be found at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Just two days after acquiring the Van Gogh, Ryoei Saito went on to pick up an Impressionist masterpiece by Pierre-Auguste RENOIR. Au Moulin de la galette (1876, 78 x 114 cm) is considered to be one of Renoir’s most important works and was originally presented at the Impressionist exhibition of 1877. Once again, Saito confounded all expectations and smashed the high estimate of $21 million by bidding $71 million ($78.1 million including buyer’s premium) on 17 May 1990 at Sotheby’s. Like the Portrait du Docteur Gachet, there are two versions of this work, with one of them held by the Musée d’Orsay. Au Moulin de la Galette hovers just outside our top 10, taking 11th place in the list of the world’s most expensive artworks.

Impressionism set the benchmark for the high-end art market during the late 1980s and into the 1990s. But as the market in major pieces began to dry up, the 20th century masters started taking over the high-end market with the dawn of the new millennium. Today, eight of the ten most expensive works in the world were produced in the 20th century, and three of them after 1950: L’Homme qui marche I by Alberto GIACOMETTI (1960), Orange, Red, Yellow by Mark ROTHKO (1961) and Triptych by Francis BACON (1976).

Picasso, the perennial favourite
Pablo Picasso holds three of the top ten places in our list of top-selling works and single-handedly accounts for 32% of revenues in this ranking. Before reaching his peak of $95 million ($106,482,500 million including buyer’s premium) with his canvas Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932, 162 x 130 cm), on 4 May 2010 and before the record set by Edvard Munch, Pablo PICASSO was the most expensive artist in the world thanks to his Garçon à la Pipe (99.7 x 81.3 cm), a work painted in 1905 when the artist was just 24 years old. This painting sold for $93 million ($104,168,000 including buyer’s premium) on 5 May 2004 at Sotheby’s New York.

The very high-end art market rewards iconic works, and particularly those where the history of art intersects with the personal history of the artist (as with Picasso and his women) or with the grand sweep of history. This Top 10 shows that the art market is taking its revenge on the ideological muddle of the past that attempted to gag some of Europe’s greatest artists. Works affected included Van Gogh’s Portrait du Docteur Gachet, accused of being degenerate art and confiscated before it passed through the hands of Hermann Goering; Portrait d’Adèle Bloch-Bauer II, the object of a protracted court battle after it was confiscated in 1939 following Austria’s annexation by Germany, and later sold to the New York cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder for $78.5 million on 8 November 2006; and of course the Scream by Edvard Munch, a marginal artist denounced as “degenerate” by the Nazis – an artist incapable of happiness whose anguish went on to rock the very foundations of art history.