The art world is a very subjective space. The quality of art is defined, essentially, by the opinion of experts and the price of said art is open to interpretation as well – art isn’t sold like a car or a book; auctions are the most important way that famous art gets sold. This ensures that the value of famous works is always in flux and that the richest have the first pick of whatever they want and can buy the most expensive paintings! Millionaires and billionaires around the world have gone to famous art auctions and bought up masterpieces for absolutely astronomical amounts of money and galleries around the world have made a fortune because of it.
When money isn’t a limitation, we can see just how much paintings can be worth – to the right buyer! From rare abstract pieces to those classics that stand the test of time, here are the most expensive paintings, in ascending order, which sold for the most money ever, worldwide.
No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red), by Mark Rothko (140 Million Euro)
Beginning the examination of the most expensive paintings, we have this brilliant piece by Mark Rothko, a Russian-American Abstract Expressionist, who completed the painting in 1951. This work is a beautiful examination of colours done in an almost pastel style, giving the entire piece a warmth and emotional expression that is a delight to see.
Rothko joins de Kooning and Pollock as famous and pivotal post-war artists that progressed the Abstract Expressionist movement. His works have blended philosophy and passion in a way that few have managed before, taking inspiration from Greek mythology and Nietzsche himself in order to carve a personal path for himself and his art. His abstractions are heavily intellectual and each piece is a statement that Rothko held to fiercely.
The billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev spent the exorbitant figure on this piece of work and is also the owner of three of the eleven most expensive paintings to ever sell – No. 6, along with Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi and Modigliani’s Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion. All totaled together, Mr. Rybolovlev’s collection is no less than $431.5 million USD. This, of course, doesn’t take into consideration any other art pieces the man has – a truly daunting figure to be sure.
No. 17A, by Jackson Pollock ($200 million)
Jackson Pollock is regarded as a master of his generation – his technique of drip painting has been heavily showcased in the Abstract Expressionism movement and he has been one of the leading figures in modern art for decades.
His work has been widely regarded with both fame and notoriety and he remains a very divisive figure in the art world, even when taking into account his success and his contributions.
His work has been incredibly lucrative and remains so in the years since his death: in 2016 the billionaire hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin purchased No. 17A for a total of $200 million at auction and is on display in one of the man’s private homes. As an avid art collector, Griffin owns a collection of the most expensive paintings in the world and this Pollock piece is only one of several multi-million dollar paintings in his possession.
This piece is a perfect example of the brilliance and divisiveness of Pollock, and was one of many works of his that showcase his masterful drip technique that was so heavily criticized by the community at large. Whether or not you believe in Pollock’s importance, his influence on art collectors and art dealers is at least something we can acknowledge.
The Card Players, by Paul Cézanne (~$250-300 million)
Painted during the final period of Cézanne, in the early 1890’s, this piece is a seminal moment for the artist and considered a pivotal moment of his transition to the ‘final stages’ of his career. The peasants in the painting, focusing intently on their pleasure and their pastime, is highly reminiscent of a theme from the 17th century – that of a genre of painting that depicts vivacious gamblers in various settings.
Of course, in this Cézanne painting, the gamblers are much more subdued and the setting more simplified. A meditative piece, to be sure, this work is a bold, yet subtle, piece. Showcasing life in this way was one of Cézanne’s strengths, and this painting is a perfect example of his mastery.
The painting has an interesting history – with five other paintings similarly titled The Card Players also by Cézanne, all of which focus on just that – people playing cards. While the paintings vary in number of players, from three players to two, it is the most famous version that caught the eye of the royal family of Qatar.
The royal family of Qatar purchased this painting in 2011, for an estimated total in the neighborhood of $250-300 million dollars. According to some sources, the money was spent in the most expensive paintings in order to encourage Qatar to become a more intellectual hub, with this painting being a prime feature of this endeavor. Regardless if it worked or not, the painting itself is a fantastic work that was well worth the price.
When Will You Marry? By Paul Gauguin ($300 million)
This painting by the Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin is tied for the most expensive paintings ever sold: $300 million dollars at auction, purchased by Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani, in February 2015.
The painting depicts an interestingly idyllic scene with two women, dressed in beautiful gowns – clearly not the type of individual or setting that Gauguin would have seen every day in France of 1892. Traveling to Tahiti for the first time, it was Gauguin’s wish to find a landscape that he could describe as a paradise, where he could create a “pure, ‘primitive’ art.” He would go on to paint many such native women in a variety of styles: as nudes, dressed traditionally (as per When Will You Marry?) and even dressed in western-style clothing.
While one can argue that the depiction of native Tahitians as a perfect, utopic people was stereotypical, Gauguin’s compatriots highly enjoyed the idyllic lifestyle of Gauguin’s subjects. The public at large enjoyed his works and he was always financially successful.
As another work of art purchased by Qatar representatives, whether by the royal family or other interested parties, this piece is another feather in the cap of the prosperous nation.
Interchange, by Willem de Kooning ($300 million)
A masterpiece painted by the Abstract Expressionist de Kooning in 1955, this painting holds the current title as number 1 among the “most expensive paintings to date.” It is currently located in the private collection of the billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin, as well as other extremely expensive pieces of artwork, and is a masterpiece of abstract expression.
de Kooning was a prominent influence on the Abstract Expressionist movement, which includes Pollock and other famous artists. His works, to date, have sold for hundreds of millions of dollars in total, with many of his paintings holding records at one time or another – an entire collection of de Koonings would be a billion dollars or more!
It is easy to see why de Kooning’s masterpiece Interchange caught the eye of Griffin – as a fan of abstract expressionism (the owner of the Pollock painting above, for instance), having the influence of de Kooning in his collection only bolsters it. This piece is famous for progressing the Abstract Expressionist movement and a perfect example of de Kooning’s ability to blend Cubism, Expressionism and Surrealism into one amalgam of form and beauty. de Kooning’s influence can still be felt today – perhaps this can account for Griffin’s purchase – in the techniques of the highly abstract and erotic painter Cecily Brown, for instance.
Subjective value and subjective taste for the most expensive paintings
Are the most expensive paintings worth that much? It can be debated as much as anyone likes, but art has, essentially, always been a subjective enterprise. If someone loves a piece of art enough, if it resounds in their soul, then they may be willing to pay whatever they want in order to acquire it. If they’re billionaires? They can pay as much as they’d like!
It’s easy, when you consider this, to understand the prevailing idea that masterpieces are incredibly expensive. Fine art transcends time periods and cultures, and even the Qatar government can gain appreciation from a French painting that’s over a hundred years old. It shouldn’t be asked “is this painting worth it?” because that question is highly dependent on the buyer – and how much disposable income they have.
Whether art finds itself in private collections around the world or nestled in museums for anyone to enjoy, it’s undeniable that the business of art is a lucrative and important one in order to attempt to give an objective value to masterpieces. We know now that the most expensive paintings are worth $300 million simply for the fact that there have been works that have sold for that much. It is inevitable that this trends into the future, and we shouldn’t really be surprised when the $300 million figure is beaten.