10 Most Expensive Art Sales in History

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Art has emerged as a popular investment vehicle and investors around the world have incorporated art as a strategy into their portfolios. In 2013 alone, it was estimated that $63 billion was spent on art sales. Of course, in most cases the love and passion of the collector is still the main motivation for the incredible numbers that can be found in the list below.

The 10 most expensive art sales in history

1. Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)

Year Painted: 1892
Artist: Paul Gaugin
Date of Sale: February 2015
Sale Price: ≈$300 million
Seller: Rudolf Staechelin Family
Buyer: Unknown (Possibly the State of Qatar)
Buying Method: Private sale

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This late 19th-century piece depicting a scene of two Tahitian women clad in traditional and Western clothing sold earlier this year for the highest price ever paid for a piece of art. It was a part of a larger collection of Impressionistic and Post-Impressionistic art collected by the late Swiss businessman and art collector Rudolf Staechelin. As with other pieces from Staechlin’s collection, this piece was on loan to the Kunstmuseum in Basel prior to its purchase.

Despite being under much scrutiny and speculation, it has been confirmed that the piece was bought by the Qatar Museum. Qatar is considered to be the biggest buyer of art. Since it’s acquisition, the piece was featured in an exhibit of Paul Gaugin’s work at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland. The exhibit concluded on June 28th, 2015 where it was then on exhibit at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid from July until September 14th.

 2. The Card Players

Year Painted: 1892/93
Artist: Paul Cézanne
Date of Sale: April 2011
Sale Price (Inflation-Adjusted): $272+ million
Seller: George Embiricos
Buyer: State of Qatar
Buying Method: Private sale

This piece by French artist Paul Cézanne is one in a series of five painted from 1890-1895. The painting depicts two men at a table playing cards. The painting was sold from the private collection of Greek shipping magnate, the late George Embiricos. Embiricos earned a law degree from the University of Athens before joining the family shipping business in London. In the 1940s, he moved to New York with his wife to set up an office. It was there he began accumulating his eclectic collection of artwork. His collection included pieces by Goya, Picasso, van Gogh, and Bacon to name a few.

The purchase of the piece seems to be under some element of scrutiny. Forbes claims that while it was obviously the Qatari Royal Family who bought it, why they bought it is somewhat of a mystery. Considered to be ‘longtime players in the international art scene with a history of making magnificent – if at times troublesome – purchases’, this purchase isn’t for investment purposes but rather a need to be, thus have, the best. And this piece is by all means considered one of the best.

 3. No. 6 (Violet, Green, and Red)

Year Painted: 1951
Artist: Mark Rothko
Date of Sale: August 2014
Sale Price (Inflation-Adjusted): $186 million
Seller: Cherise Moueix
Buyer: Dmitry Rybolovlev
Buying Method: Private sale via Yves Bouvier

While this piece may be one of the most expensive works of art ever bought, the controversy surrounding it is worth more. Russian businessman and majority owner and President of the French football club AS Monaco, Dmitry Rybolovlev, bought the piece in 2014 for a whopping sum of 140M Euros only to learn a few months later that he was most undoubtedly a victim of fraud. In a conversation with a well-known art adviser, he discovered a piece he paid USD118M for was actually only sold for USD93.5M. 9 days later he brought up charges against Yves Bouvier for fraud.

CEO of Natural Le Coultre, Bouvier is a Swiss businessman and art handler. His family acquired the company in 1983. In less than 20 years, Bouvier took what started out as a moving and furniture storing company and turned it into the world’s largest art shipping and storage business. Rybolovlev has now opened another lawsuit against Bouvier over the theft of three paintings and 58 sketches by Picasso, most of which were sold to Ryoblovlev, from Picasso’s stepdaughter Catherine Hutin-Blay. Both cases are ongoing.

4. Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit

Year Painted: 1634
Artist: Rembrandt
Date of Sale: September 2015
Sale Price (Inflation-Adjusted): $180 million
Seller: Éric de Rothschild
Buyer: Rijksmuseum and the Louvre
Buying Method: Private sale

These portrait paintings are two full-length wedding portraits. An unusual pair for Rembrandt, these two have always hung side by side. The painting remained in the family until they were sold in 1877 to French Banker Gustave de Rothschild. The paintings remained in the Rothschild line of bankers until being sold by great-grandson Eric de Rothschild.

The portraits were acquired through a joint venture by the Louvre and Rijksmuseum. Originally, the paintings were to be bought by the Dutch government and the Rijksmuseum, but after some negotiating it was split with the Louvre. The two paintings will remain able to be viewed side by side, alternating between both museums. Before now, the artwork had only been on exhibit once, in 1956 at the Rijksmuseum for the artist’s 350th birthday.

5. Les Femmes d’Alger (“Version O”)

Year Painted: 1955
Artist: Pablo Picasso
Date of Sale: May 2015
Sale Price (Inflation-Adjusted): $179.4 million
Seller: Private Collection
Buyer: Private Collection
Buying Method: Christie’s, New York

Version O is one in a larger collection of 15 paintings and multiple drawings entitled Women of Algiers. The entire collection was purchased by the late business owners and art collectors Victor and Sally Ganz for $212,500 in 1956. Their collection became one of the most important art collections in the 20th century. They sold off 10 of the painting to the Saidenberg Gallery and kept the remaining 5, which were sold off after their deaths.

Version O was sold at Christie’s in New York two times. The first time was in November 1997 for the sum of USD31.9M to an undisclosed Saudi Arabian buyer. It was then put up again in May 2015. It was pre-valued for a staggering USD140M, one of the highest ever for an auctioned work of art. The final sale price of $179.4M was a record for Christie’s. It was bought by former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani.

6. Nu Couché

Year Painted: 1917/18
Artist: Amedeo Modigliani
Date of Sale: November 2015
Sale Price (Inflation-Adjusted): $170.4 million
Seller: Laura Mattioli Rossi
Buyer: Liu Yiqian
Buying Method: Christie’s, New York

This 1917 Italian piece is one of artist Modigliani’s most reproduced and exhibited work. This piece was a part of a larger series while he was under the patronage of his Polish dealer Léopold Zborowski. It was a part of Modigliani’s one and only exhibit at the Galerie Berthe Weill in 1917, which the police shut down. The piece was then sold at an auction in 1934 to the late Gianni Mattioli.

The buyer, Liu Yiqian, is a Chinese billionaire who built his fortune investing stock, pharmaceuticals, and real estate. Over the last couple years, he has made a few healthy investments in the art scene. His recent acquisition of the Nu Couché certainly made waves for being the second most expensive piece of art purchased at auction. What was the even bigger sensation was that he paid for the piece with his American Express card. Now he won’t have to worry about paying for flights for the rest of his life.

7. No. 5, 1948

Year Painted: 1948
Artist: Jackson Pollock
Date of Sale: November 2006
Sale Price (Inflation-Adjusted): $164.3 million
Seller: David Geffen
Buyer: David Martinez
Buying Method: Private sale via Sotheby’s

No. 5 is a drip painting, a style common for abstract expressionism, and was bought by Alfonso Ossorio in 1949 for an impressive $164 million. The original painting was damaged during delivery. Despite Pollock fixing it, Ossorio could still detect a difference. Pollock offered to rework the painting. The final result was much to Ossorio’s liking.

The painting was sold by David Geffen, a college dropout who succeeded in the entertainment industry. He started out as a mailroom clerk and went on to be a talent agent and later own his own recording label and co-found DreamWorks SKG, but only after lying about having a college degree. In 2013, his art collection was reported to be worth USD1.1B, a fifth of his personal net worth. His sale of the No. 5 is believed by some to have been a strategic move at the time in an attempt to make a bid for the LA Times. The piece was reportedly sold to Mexican investor David Martinez. Many sources have denied these claims, including Martinez’s lawyers, but many people claim that the piece currently hangs in his New York home.

8. Woman III

Year Painted: 1953
Artist: Willem de Kooning
Date of Sale: November 2006
Sale Price (Inflation-Adjusted): $161.4 million
Seller: David Geffen
Buyer: Steven A. Cohen
Buying Method: Private sale via Larry Gagosian

The piece is one of a series of six where the central theme was a woman. The piece was included in a collection at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art until the revolution of 1979. It was traded to seller David Geffen in 1994 for the remnants of a precious 16th century painted manuscript. He sold the painting around the same time he sold the aforementioned No. 5 by Jackson Pollock.

The buyer Steven A. Cohen is a hedge fund manager and founder of SAC Capitol Advisors. He is also ranked as the 106th richest person in the world, 35th in the USA. He began collecting art in 2000 and to date has spent upwards of USD700M. His collection contains an eclectic assortment of unusual art pieces, impressionistic work, and contemporary art. His purchase of Woman III made it the fourth most expensive piece bought at that time.

9. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Year Painted: 1907
Artist: Gustav Klimt
Date of Sale: June 2006
Sale Price (Inflation-Adjusted): $158.5 million
Seller: Maria Altmann
Buyer: Ronald Lauder (for the Neue Galerie)
Buying Method: Private sale via Christie’s

This piece is one of two paintings of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the only model the artist ever painted twice. It is considered to be the final piece in the artist’s golden phase. Adele asked in her will for her husband to donate the painting to the Austrian State Gallery after he died. After a lengthy legal battle, niece Maria Altmann won ownership of the painting among other seized works.

The piece was purchased by Ronald Lauder in 2006 for a record price at the time. Luader bought the piece for the Neue Galarie, an art museum he opened in 2001. The museum is specifically dedicated to artwork from Germany and Austria during the early 20th century. The acquired portrait was considered my Lauder as ‘our Mona Lisa.’

10. Le Rêve

Year Painted: 1932
Artist: Pablo Picasso
Date of Sale: March 2013
Sale Price (Inflation-Adjusted): $157.5 million
Seller: Steve Wynn
Buyer: Steven A. Cohen
Buying Method: Private sale

This 1932 French oil painting is a rendering of the artist’s 22-year old mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. The piece was first purchased in 1941 by Victor and Sally Ganz, the first piece of the impressive collection. The sale was cancelled though due to owner Steve Wynn accidently putting his elbow through it. He spent USD90,000 repairing it. Cohen ended up buying the painting in 2013 for USD155,000.

Buyer Steven A. Cohen attempted to buy this piece on two separate occasions. The first time was in 2006, the same year he purchased the aforementioned Woman III. Cohen’s purchase would have made it the highest amount paid for a piece of art at the time. The sale was cancelled though due to owner Steve Wynn accidently putting his elbow through it. He spent USD90,000 repairing it. Cohen ended up buying the painting in 2013 for USD155,000.