Top 10 most costly works in the world



Fridays are the Best! Every other Friday, Artprice offers you a themed auction ranking. As three new works were valued at more than USD 100m in 2015, the time has come to update the ranking of the most costly masterpieces in auction history.

Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Pablo PICASSO $179365000 Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955) 2015-05-11 Christie’s NEW YORK NY
2 Amedeo MODIGLIANI $170405000 Nu couché (1917-1918) 2015-11-09 Christie’s NEW YORK NY
3 Francis BACON $142405000 Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) 2013-11-12 Christie’s NEW YORK NY
4 Alberto GIACOMETTI $141285000 L’homme au doigt (1947) 2015-05-11 Christie’s NEW YORK NY
5 Edvard MUNCH $119922500 The scream (1895) 2012-05-02 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
6 Pablo PICASSO $106482500 Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) 2010-05-04 Christie’s NEW YORK NY
7 Andy WARHOL $105445000 Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963) 2013-11-13 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
8 Pablo PICASSO $104168000 Garçon à la pipe (1905) 2004-05-05 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
9 Alberto GIACOMETTI $103689994 L’homme qui marche I (1960) 2010-02-03 Sotheby’s LONDRES
10 Alberto GIACOMETTI $100965000 Chariot (1950) 2014-11-04 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
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First observation

The price of entry to the world’s Top 10 most costly works is now USD 100m, while the top record is approaching USD 200m. Thus, the record price has nearly doubled in 10 years. The first work to break through the symbolic ceiling of USD 100 millions of dollars was the Pablo Picasso masterpiece, Le Garçon à la pipe (Boy with a Pipe), sold for USD 104.1m at Sotheby’s New York in 2004. From the famous Rose Period, it was created by a young Picasso of 24 years, who had just moved to Montmartre. Acquired for USD 30,000 dollars in 1950 to join the collection of John Hay Whitney (former president of the International Herald Tribune), the work was sold by the charitable foundation Greentree, created by Betsey Whitney (deceased in 1998).

Second observation

Picasso remains the leader of a very high-end market, a legend difficult to dethrone (for more than a short time), who alone holds three records for the best auction sales in history, including the top record, earned in May 2015 with the sale of a version of Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (Women of Alger, Version ‘O’) (1955) for more than USD 179m. The sole artist to successfully face-off with him also had three sales over USD 100m: Giacometti, undeniably the most popular sculptor in the world.

Third observation

Such a ranking illustrates the supremacy of New York in this prestigious market segment. New York is where, nine gavel strikes out of ten, masterpieces change hands the best. We note that New York is the world market capital in terms of annual auction sales, far ahead of China and the UK. Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the most powerful auction houses in the world, are the only ones able to sell works of this calibre. Furthermore, they don’t hesitate to take on heavy financial engagements for sellers, via their guarantee system, to complete the sale of these masterpieces.

We also note that the works named at these price levels are all 20th century creations, with the exception of Scream by Edvard Munch, created at the end of the 19th century. The phenomenon is explained both by the globalisation of the demand for great Western artists from the last century (notably to sustain the collections of emerging museums) and by the constant, increasing scarcity of old masterpieces on the auction market. The record won for an old work has not changed since it was set 13 years ago in the West. It still belongs to Massacre des Innocents (Massacre of Innocents) by Rubens (1608-1609), a canvas sold for USD 76.6m in 2002 in London. Such a masterpiece could easily surpass the USD 100m threshold if it were to resurface at auction today.

Which other artists would be able to join the ranks today? Roy Lichtenstein, Gustav Klimt and Mark Rothko are not far behind the six current winners, all decorated with records of more than USD 85m. One of the most recent and most impressive is the record set by Roy Lichtenstein in November 2015, with the canvas Nurse (1964) sold for more than USD 95m, compared to USD 1.5m twenty years earlier (the first sale of Nurse at auction dates back to 2 May 1995 at Sotheby’s). The records race does not appear ready to end, especially as USD 100 or 200m are not such a substantial sum for some billionaires on the planet and that, by mutual agreement on the market, the recognized record greatly surpasses that of Picasso’s Femmes d’Alger: it was set at USD 300m in February 2015, with the sale of a Gauguin by a buyer from Qatar, according to The New York Times. The canvas in question is titled, Nafea faa ipoipo and dates from Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti.