25 jaw-droppingly expensive works of art

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December 10, 2018
JERRY LAMPEN // Getty Images

25 jaw-droppingly expensive works of art

The $63.7 billion international fine art trade is so enormous that the New York Times recently showcased a burgeoning industry: storing and securing the world’s most valuable artistic treasures. From individual investors to organizations to entire national governments, buyers are now routinely shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars for the world’s most coveted paintings, with sculptures and even photographs sometimes commanding seven and eight figures. 

Names like Pollock, da Vinci, Picasso, and Rembrandt are synonymous with works deemed “priceless.” But as auction house records and confirmed reports of private transactions prove, the works these artists produced clearly have prices—staggering ones. Works that shattered records just 30 years ago wouldn’t even be in contention on a list of today's most expensive pieces. Here’s a look at 25 of the world’s choicest works of art, and the astronomical price tags attached to them.

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AFP Contributor // Getty Images

Salvator Mundi

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci

Cost: $450,312,500

Dated around 1500, Leonardo da Vinci's “Salvator Mundi“ painting depicts Jesus Christ as the "savior of the world" and is one of fewer than 20 paintings by the famed artist still in existence. It sold for $450.3 million at Christie's auction house in November 2017 to an anonymous buyer, later revealed to be a Saudi prince, making it the world's most expensive painting.

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No. 5, 1948

Artist: Jackson Pollock

Cost: $140 million

Before there was “Salvator Mundi,“ there was "No. 5, 1948," the Jackson Pollock masterpiece that became the most expensive painting in the world when it sold in a private transaction for around $140 million in 2006, according to a New York Times report. According to the Times, the painting was purchased by an “obsessively private“ buyer and Mexican financier named David Martinez. A Sotheby's agent reportedly brokered the private deal.

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DIETER NAGL // Getty Images

Adele Bloch-Bauer II

Artist: Gustav Klimt

Cost: $150 million

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey was the seller behind 2016's priciest art transaction. That year, Winfrey sold Gustav Klimt's "Adele Bloch-Bauer II" for about 71% more than the $87.9 million she paid for it in 2006. The work, which was at one point looted by the Nazis, is now the property of an unidentified Chinese buyer.

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Dan Kitwood // Getty Images


Artist: Roy Lichtenstein

Cost: $165 million

In 2017, The New York Times confirmed rumors that art collector and activist Agnes Gund sold Roy Lichtenstein's comic book-inspired “Masterpiece“ for $165 million to billionaire hedge fund investor Steven Cohen. Gund reportedly used the windfall to start a criminal justice reform fund.

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Public Domain

'No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red)'

Artist: Mark Rothko

Cost: $186 million

The world got a glimpse into the high-stakes, high-pressure, and often shady world of the international fine art trade when Bloomberg reported on the $186 million private sale of Mark Rothko's “No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red)." The transaction followed a clandestine meeting between a Swiss art dealer and a Russian billionaire. It was just one meeting of many in “a freewheeling market in private sales where collectors trade masterpieces like chips in a casino.“

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'Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler // Wikicommons

Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)

Artist: Paul Gauguin

Cost: $300 million

In 2015, The New York Times broke the story of a highly secretive, $300 million private sale. The work in question: an 1892 oil painting by Paul Gauguin of two Tahitian girls entitled “Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)" The painting was likely purchased by a well-heeled buyer from the small, oil-rich emirate of Qatar from a retired Sotheby's executive living in Switzerland.

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TIMOTHY A. CLARY // Getty Images

Woman III

Artist: Willem de Kooning

Cost: $137.5 million

Long before he scooped up "Masterpiece," hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen established himself as one of the world's premier contemporary art collectors with his 2006 purchase of Willem de Kooning's "Woman III." The New York Times first broke the story of the $137.5 million private transaction between Cohen and David Geffen, an entertainment mogul and renowned art collector.

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L'Homme Qui Marche I

Artist: Alberto Giacometti

Cost: $104.3 million

In 2010, Alberto Giacometti's famed sculpture “Walking Man“ broke what was then the record for a sculpture—or any work of art—sold at auction. It fetched more than $104 million from an anonymous buyer after just eight minutes of intense bidding.

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Yann Caradec // Flickr

Grand Tête Mince

Artist: Alberto Giacometti

Cost: $50,005,000

Another famed Alberto Giacometti sculpture is “Grand Tête Mince," which sold for more than $50 million at Sotheby's New York in 2013. The bronze bust was reportedly purchased by New York art dealer Bill Acquavella.

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JOERG KOCH // Getty Images

Rhein II

Artist: Andreas Gursky

Cost: $4,338,500

Seven-figure price tags are almost unheard of for photographs, unless they're taken by the famed photographer Andreas Gursky. Gursky's “Rhein II“ shattered records in 2011 when it fetched more than $4.3 million at auction at Christie's in New York.

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Nu couché (sur le côté gauche)

Artist: Amedeo Modigliani

Cost: $157.159 million

When Amedeo Modigliani revealed "Nu Couché (Sur le Côté Gauche)" in 1917, the painting was deemed highly controversial. A little more than a century later, it was expensive. The piece became one of the most valuable in the world when it fetched more than $157 million at Sotheby's New York, but even still, it is not the artist's most expensive work.

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PHILIPPE LOPEZ // Getty Images

Nu Couché

Artist: Amedeo Modigliani

Cost: $170.4 million

The highest price tag for a Modigliani rests on "Nu Couché," which sold for more than $170 million at Christie's New York in 2015. The New York Times reported that the masterpiece—another once-controversial nude—was purchased by Liu Yiqian, a billionaire who was once a taxi driver, after a six-way showdown of intense bidding.

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JERRY LAMPEN // Getty Images

Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit

Artist: Rembrandt

Cost: $180.6 million

According to The New York Times, the Dutch government was so intent on bringing “Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit" back home in 2015 that the country itself put up half the money needed to buy the painting. The painting by famed Dutch master Rembrandt was previously owned by renowned French businessman Éric de Rothschild.

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Michael Bowles // Getty Images – Another work of art by Richard Prince

Spiritual America

Artist: Richard Prince

Cost: $3,973,000

“Spiritual America,“ which sold at Christie's New York for nearly $4 million in 2014, may be the most controversial multi-million work of art in circulation. Since his style is to take pictures of existing photographs, Richard Prince's work is already a hot topic of contention in the art world. This picture of a picture, however, tops the debate. The image portrays a sexualized then-10-year-old Brooke Shields, a photo her mother sold to Prince for $450 in 1975, then sued him to stop using in 1981.

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bm.iphone // Flickr

Water Serpents II

Artist: Gustav Klimt

Cost: $183 million

The Gustav Klimt masterpiece “Water Serpent II“ is at the heart of a multi-billion scandal that has been rocking the art world since 2012. The $183 million purchase was just one of 38 pieces possibly totaling more than $2 billion dollars bought by a single Russian oligarch from a Swiss art entrepreneur. Through a series of international lawsuits and accusations, the Russian buyer alleges the Swiss dealer pretended to be brokering deals for commission, but was actually buying the paintings himself, then flipping them for 10-figure profits—all with the help of famed auction house Sotheby's.  

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Public Domain // Flickr

Garçon à la Pipe

Artist: Pablo Picasso

Cost: $104 million

Pablo Picasso's "Boy With a Pipe" broke all previous records and founded the nine-figure club when it sold for $104 million at Sotheby's New York in 2004. The sale soared past the $70 million the painting was expected to fetch. It also crushed the previous record for most expensive work of art sold at auction, which was Vincent van Gogh's “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,“ which sold for $85 million in 1990.

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Jorge Láscar // Flickr

The Scream

Artist: Edvard Munch

Cost: $119,922,500

One of the most recognizable and celebrated paintings in history, “The Scream“ sold for just shy of $120 million at Sotheby's New York in 2012. A representation of what Sotheby's calls “a stunning vision of existential loneliness and anguish,“ the Edvard Munch masterpiece inspired the founding of the Expressionist art movement.  

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Carl Court // Getty Images


Artist: Jasper Johns

Cost: $87 million

Jasper Johns “created more than 100 flags in various media." There is, however, only one true “Flag.“ The work, which Johns exhibited at his first one-man show in 1958, was purchased by an anonymous buyer for $87 million in 2014.

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Public Domain // Wikicommons

Portrait of Dr. Gachet

Artist: Vincent van Gogh

Cost: $85 million

Few artists are more celebrated than Vincent van Gogh, and few van Goghs are more sought-after than “Portrait of Dr. Gachet.“ When it sold at Christie's New York for $85 million in 1990, it crushed the previous record of $53.9 million set in 1987 by “Irises,“ also by van Gogh.

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Public Domain // Wikicommons

The Card Players

Artist: Paul Cézanne

Cost: $250 million

Small in size but huge in terms of wealth, the small oil-rich emirate of Qatar is flush with cash and hungry for art. In 2012, the nation's government boosted what Vanity Fair called an “effort to become an international intellectual hub“ when it purchased “The Card Players“ by Paul Cézanne for $250 million. It was the highest price ever paid for any work of art at the time.

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Public Domain


Artist: Willem de Kooning

Cost: $300 million

In 2016, billionaire Chicago hedge fund giant Ken Griffin had a half-billion dollars to spend on art. He coughed up the lion's share, $300 million, on "Interchange," a 1955 painting by famed artist Willem de Kooning. Griffin wasn't done yet, however.

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JUSTIN TALLIS // Getty Images

Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O)

Artist: Pablo Picasso

Cost: $200 million

With $200 million left in his budget, Ken Griffin was also able to add a Picasso to his world-renowned collection. The CEO and founder of Citadel went home that day with Picasso's 1948 treasure “Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O).“

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Fort Greene Focus // Flickr

Le Rêve

Artist: Pablo Picasso

Cost: $179.4 million

In 2015, you could still break the art auction world record for less than $180 million. Those days are gone, but that's exactly what happened when Picasso's “Le Reve" sold at Christie's New York for more than $35 million more than the previous record holder, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,“ which fetched $142.4 million two years before.

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Hrag Vartanian // Flickr

'Three Studies of Lucian Freud'

Artist: Francis Bacon

Cost: $142,405,00

With a single work of art now commanding upwards of half a billion dollars, it was only 2013 when the world of "reasonably priced" fine art was still a reality. That year, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” by Francis Bacon became the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction when the hammer dropped that evening at Christie’s New York.


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