Art is in the eye of the beholder, but what are those beholders willing to spend to get the most valuable pieces of art? We look at the most expensive ones.
Updated Mar 18, 2023
Updated Mar 18, 2023
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Art is in the eye of the beholder, but some beholders definitely have more to spend. That’s what makes the monetary side of art so controversial—it’s no exact science, but every art sale is a clue into what collectors are willing to shell out.
It’s hard to say decisively what the most expensive piece of modern art is, especially since prices are subject to change over time. They’re not just affected by the artist’s reputation, the condition of the piece, and market demand, but also the current state of the economy. Let's take a look at some of the biggest modern art sales.
But before we do, we’ll explore why art is so expensive in the first place and why some of the world’s richest connoisseurs are willing to pay top dollar for the world’s most culturally important works.
Art can be expensive for many reasons, but the biggest reason is that art itself is valuable. It takes years of experience, time, effort, and knowledge to become a master artist, musician, or career creative. And it's no cheap endeavor, including for investors.
The reason they take the leap is that art doesn't go down with stock market volatility. The Artprice Global Index has an inverse correlation with the S&P 500, which means art tends to go against the trends of the stock market with less volatility.
Everything on this list was painted before the 2000s. That underlines another fundamental understanding: cultural significance is valuable. Valuable art often has a few hallmarks—rare, unique, and timely. And collectors, especially ones passionate about specific artists or styles, want to count recognizable and eclectic works among their private collections.
Naturally, that leads to one of the last conditions affecting the value of art: the artist. Most people admire and recognize famous artists like Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, and Andy Warhol. However, there are only so many Picassos and Pollocks to go around—that scarcity affects what people are willing to pay for certain paintings and works in the art world.
Now that we understand the factors behind the most expensive paintings ever sold, we can take a closer look at what those paintings actually are:
(These prices are subject to change and may not be the most up-to-date information)
It's probably unsurprising that the most expensive painting ever sold was painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Salvator Mundi set an auction record when it sold for $450.3 million at Sotheby’s auction house in 2017. In 2022 dollars, that would be roughly $500 million.
The oil painting, which means “Savior of the World” in Latin, depicts Jesus Christ in Renaissance-era garb. It is believed to have been painted around 1500 and to be one of just 20 paintings by da Vinci that survived.
Recreation of 'Salvator Mundi' by Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1500) worth an estimated half a billion dollars.
The world’s most expensive painting is not without its controversy, though. Over the centuries, it has been owned by many noblemen—most famously, the painting came into the possession of the British royal family. But for most of its life, the painting’s originality was disputed. It was long considered a copy or replica. In fact, Sir Francis Cook’s great-grandson sold it as the work of one of Leonardo’s pupils.
It wasn’t until after it resurfaced for auction in 2005 that the mastermind behind the painting—and its provenance—was drawn back into dispute. In 2011, the painting was reattributed to da Vinci by art researchers, turning a painting that had sold for just a few thousand dollars in the years before into one of the world’s most valuable pieces.
The controversy of the painting’s origin weighs heavily on its price. Today, it's owned by Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
Though da Vinci’s painting is the undisputed auction leader, the world’s most expensive modern art piece isn’t far behind. Willem de Kooning’s Interchange was sold in September 2015. It fetched roughly $300 million, or about $350 million in 2022 dollars.
Willem de Kooning's 'Interchange' (1955) worth an estimated $350 million.
The 1955 abstract oil painting holds the previous record for the most expensive piece of art sold at auction—in large part because William de Kooning (a lesser-known name to the artistically unseasoned) was a leading artist in the American modern art movement. He's acclaimed in the same vein as abstract painters such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.
Today, the expensive artwork is owned by Citadel Securities CEO Ken Griffin, who acquired the painting in a private deal. Griffin is a pervasive art and antique collector who has since lent the Kooning painting to the Art Institute of Chicago.
The third-most valuable painting sold is part of a series of oil paintings. The Card Players by Paul Cézanne sold for over $250 million in 2011. In 2022 dollars, the series would be worth over $300 million.
Paul Cézanne's 'I Giocatori a Carte' (circa 1890 to 1895) worth an estimated $300 million.
Cézanne painted the five portraits in the 1890s, depicting various scenes of card players. The series is considered one of the artist's greatest hits. The most valuable portrait in the collection is also the most complex one and was sold to the Royal Family of Qatar in a 2011 auction. The remaining members of the series are in private hands or at museums.
The pandemic brought about a banner a few years for art sales, helping many pieces of contemporary and modern art reach new highs. Though it didn’t make our shortlist of the most valuable paintings ever sold, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus by Francis Bacon sold for $84.5 million in 2020. The 1981 painting is about as valuable as a painting of its recency gets.
Francis Bacon's 'Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus' (1981) worth an estimated $85 million.
Francis Bacon has also sold a slew of other expensive paintings, mostly triptychs, which are "large format" paintings featuring three individual frames. Three Studies For A Portrait Of John Edwards sold at Christie’s New York for $80.8 million in 2014, and Triptych sold for $86 million in 2008. A Triptych featuring three studies of Lucian Freud also fetched top dollar at auction.
The most expensive sculpture ever sold is said to be Alberto Giacometti's L'homme au doigt, which was purchased for $141.3 million at a Sotheby's auction in May 2015. Giacometti was a Swiss sculptor and painter associated with the surrealist movement. L'homme au doigt, which means "the man with the finger," is a bronze sculpture of a tall, slender figure holding his finger to his lips as if in contemplation or warning. It was created in 1947.
Art critic Judd Tully standing beside Alberto Giacometti's 'L'homme au doigt,' worth roughly $177 million.
The second most expensive sculpture ever sold is Constantin Brâncuși's Bird in Space. It was sold for $27.45 million in a Christie's auction in 2005—far less than Giacometti's most expensive work. Bird in Space is a bronze sculpture of a bird in flight created in 1927. Brâncuși was a Romanian sculptor and painter who was known for his abstract sculptures.
The most expensive painting ever stolen is said to be Paul Cézanne's The Boy in the Red Vest, which was taken from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris in October 2007. The painting, which was created in 1888, is estimated to be worth $100 million. It has not yet been recovered.
Paul Cézanne's 'Le Garçon au gilet rouge' (circa 1889) worth an estimated $100 million.
It's difficult to say exactly how much the Mona Lisa is worth, as the value of the artwork isn't a fixed number but varies depending on what factors are considered. The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in the world, so its value as a cultural and historical artifact is incalculable.
Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' (circa 1505) is considered priceless.
It's currently on display at the Louvre in Paris and is insured for $1 billion. However, this number reflects the cost of replacing the painting in the event of theft or damage and does not necessarily represent its market value. The art world generally considers the Mona Lisa to be priceless, let alone one of the most expensive paintings.
The Scream is a famous painting by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. It depicts a figure standing on a bridge with a distressed expression on its face, holding their head in their hands and emitting a scream. The work is one of a series of paintings that Munch created on the theme of anxiety and the human condition. It has become an iconic modern art piece.
The original version of The Scream was painted in 1893 using oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard. It's now part of the collection of the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. Munch also created several other versions of the painting, including a pastel version in 1895 and a lithograph sometime between 1895 and 1896.
Edvard Much's The Scream (1893) worth an estimated $212 million.
The painting's composition, with the central figure set against a swirling orange and red sky, is widely interpreted to represent the innermost turmoil and distress Munch had felt at the time. It's thought to have been influenced by a series of events in Munch's life, including the death of his mother and sister, as well as his own struggles with mental illness. Despite its dark subject matter, The Scream has become an enduring image that continues to be widely reproduced and admired.
In May 2012, The Scream sold at auction for $120 million, which was a new record for a work of art at the time. However, the value of the artwork may have changed since then.
The world’s richest people invest in art for sport, but how can you get a slice of the most expensive paintings? Well, unless you’re ready to make out a multi-million dollar check, odds are you’ll be a fractional owner of fine art using Masterworks.
Or, you can buy individual pieces from smaller, less-notable modern artists and hold onto them until they increase in value. This can be a risky strategy, however, as the value of art is difficult to predict and can fluctuate significantly. That's why investors employ the guidance of the experts at Masterworks to make the best art investment.
Another option is to use Public and invest in art funds or art-related investment vehicles, such as mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that invest in art or art-related businesses. Yieldstreet also offers Art Equity Funds to investors who want to access a diversified art portfolio, These types of investments can provide exposure to the art market without the need to purchase individual pieces of art.
Alternatively, you can invest in companies that are involved in the art industry, such as art auction houses, art dealers, or art storage and logistics firms. This can be a means of exposure to the art market, but it doesn't entail direct ownership of art.
It's important to carefully research any investment in art or art-related businesses and to consult with a financial advisor before making any decisions.
The taxes you pay on fine art returns will depend on the specific circumstances of your investment and your location. Generally, if you sell a work of art for a profit, you may be subject to capital gains tax on the difference between the sale price and the purchase price. The exact tax rate you must pay depends on numerous factors like how long you held the artwork, your overall tax bracket, and the laws in your jurisdiction.
Usually, any profits or gains that you make from selling fine art like paintings or sculptures, are subject to capital gains taxes. The amount you'll be taxed can vary wildly based on the amount of profit that you made on the sale.
It's important to keep records of your art purchases and sales, including receipts, invoices, and other documentation to help you accurately report your fine art returns (or losses) on your tax return. You may also benefit from consulting a tax advisor or certified accountant who is familiar with the rules that may apply to your fine art investments.
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