To Dream, to Collect

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And the trophy for the most expensive art piece goes to: The Mona Lisa.

Related articles: Top 10 most expensive artworks sold in 2020 - Top 5 Art Books to read - 4 Most Expensive Artworks by Living Artists

Have you ever wondered how much is Leonardo da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa worth today?

The price of the world’s most famous painting - which continues to draw large crowds of visitors to the Louvre in Paris - is literally “insane”. For all intents and purposes, the Renaissance masterpiece is considered priceless and its aesthetic beauty will be eternal and imperishable. The Mona Lisa is believed to be worth more than $850 million, taking into account the inflation. In 1962, in fact, it was insured for $100 million, the highest at the time.

But while this Da Vinci’s Old Master is on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, there is another Da Vinci’s master, Salvator Mundi, which has been sold, in 2017, to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman, for $450 million. A world record price at Christie’s, in New York, for an artwork which now might be “locked up” in a secret storage in Switzerland. If Salvator Mundi was bought for $450 million, we can expect, on the open market, more than 100 times more for the most famous painting in the world, with the significant premium of the first. The French government, ad absurdum, could resell the painting for over $50 billion dollars, to restore the public debt. But that won't happen because the most expensive painting in the world, as well as having an invaluable status, absorbs an immense “tourism value” every year. To the French economy the Mona Lisa is worth at least €3 billion. Doing the calculation, the Mona Lisa is an estimable treasure that cannot be converted and re-sellable to private.

In fact, in the art market, there are also “private sales” (these are not always reported and the purchase price is not disclosed) between “mystery buyers” and other parties. See the case of 2017, when the American hedge fund manager J. Tomilson Hill bought - ahead of auction in France - a recently rediscovered Judith Beheading Holofernes (1607), attributed to Caravaggio, for around $170 million. Caravaggio’s Baroque masterworks are not often available for sale, particularly on the public market. As a matter of fact, The Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and Saint Lawrence - stolen from the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo in 1969, probably by members of Italian Mafia - has never been found. 

There are many compelling stories about the most expensive artworks of the “Impressionist and Modern”, “Post-war and Contemporary”, “American”, and "Old Masters” art market segments.

Sandro Botticelli, Young Man Holding a Roundel,1480, tempera on poplar panel, 23 by 15 ½ in.; 58.4 by 39.4 cm, Courtesy Sotheby’s. 


Van Gogh- who is known to have sold only one painting in his lifetime, The Red Vineyard, for 400 francs (approximately $2,000 dollars), was the center of a private deal in 1989 and of a Christie’s auction in 1990. His Portrait of Dr. Gachet(1890) went for $161.4 million (adjusted price in 2019). Poor Van Gogh, a master painter who died penniless!

The Mona Lisa’s unique smile - rendered through perspective and sfumato technique - is perhaps laughing at this contemporary art market’s speculative bubbles.

Since then and in particularly recent years (all the paintings on this list have been sold since 2010), art market prices have risen exponentially. Some would say the prices have inflated beyond what is appropriate for particular artworks, but with the number of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) rising across the globe, more of them turn to art as a means to spend their outrageous fortunes.

In a sale that marked the first major auction of the year 2021, Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli’sYoung Man Holding a Roundel sold, at Sotheby’s New York, for a record $92.2 million. Since the pandemic crisis, live global auction event achieved great results; For example, On June 29th, 2020, after an intricate online “bidding battle”, Sotheby’s marked a new world auction record ($15.2 million) for a work on paper, Untitled (Head), by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s. As Basquiat’s masterwork concretizes Sotheby’s highest-ever price for a work sold to an online bidder, the price achieved by Young Man Holding a Roundel makes it not only one of the most valuable portraits of any era ever sold, but also the second most valuable Old Master painting to ever sell at auction, second to Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi.

If you are curious about the Art market's latest trends don't miss our article "2018's Artistic Highlights".

This list deals specifically with paintings sold at auction. Many other artworks have been sold privately for more than some of the prices listed here, and several of the more notable private sales will be mentioned. The most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction is Alberto Giacometti’s “L’homme au Doigt”, which in May 2015 was sold for an unprecedented $141.3 million at Christie’s New York, comparatively placing about 6th on our list. All but one painting on this list was sold at either Christie’s or Sotheby’s New York. No prices are adjusted for inflation, but all include the buyer’s premium.


10) Claude Monet “Meules” (1890) : $110.7 million.

Sotheby’s New York, 2019

A big round of applause in the grand salesroom of Sotheby’s for this stunning Monet’s landscape at sunset - from the artist’s famed Haystacks series. First owned by a couple of Chicago collectors and philanthropists, who bought the picture in Paris in 1892, and sold to an to an unidentified buyer.


Claude Monet, Meules, 1890, oil on canvas, 72,7 X 92,6 cm, Private Collection.


9. Pablo Picasso “Young Girl with a Flower Basket”: $115 million

Christie’s New York, May 8th 2018

This Picasso masterpiece formed one of the leading lots in Christie’s The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller sale, having been purchased by the Rockefeller’s in 1968.



Picasso, "Young Girl with a Flower Basket" 1905. Courtesy Artnet


8. Edvard Munch “The Scream”: $119.9 million

Sotheby’s New York, May 2nd 2012

Munch’s most famous creation, “The Scream” set a new world record when it sold in 2012, knocking Picasso off the top spot. It was on show at the British Museum in April 2019, with many other of Munch’s works and preliminary drawings on paper.



Edvard Munch, “The Scream” 1893. Courtesy Daily Art Magazine


7. Klimt's 'The Woman in Gold': $135 million

Christie’s New York, June 2006.

The cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder purchased this gold masterpiece for $135 million - a record for a Klimt’s portrait. Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a Jewish sugar industrialist, is the protagonist, like an Austrian Mona Lisa of the Art Nouveau era.   


Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also called The Lady in Gold or The Woman in Gold), 1907, Oil, silver and gold on canvas, 138 cm × 138 cm (54 in × 54 in), © Neue Galerie, New York.


6. Qi Baishi “Twelve Landscape Screens”: $140.8 million

Beijing Poly Auction, December 17th 2017

This painting is unique on our list, being the only painting not sold by either Christie’s or Sotheby’s, as well as not in New York. Instead, “Twelve Landscape Screens”, a collection of ink landscapes, set a new record for the most expensive piece of Chinese art sold at auction worldwide. This is further proof of the growing wealth and influence of the Asian market. Read more about Chinese and Japanese landscape painting.


Qi Baishi “Twelve Landscape Screens” 1925. Courtesy China Daily


5. Francis Bacon “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”: $142.4 million

Christie’s New York, November 12th 2013

“Three Studies of Lucian Freud” is another artwork that recently soared straight to the top of the most expensive list, relegating “The Scream” into second place. The extraordinary value of this piece comes not only from Francis Bacon’s own great reputation, but also in its demonstrating the relationship he had with the subject of the work, his great friend Lucian Freud, of equal fame and repute.


Francis Bacon “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” 1969. Courtesy The Telegraph


4) Van Gogh's “Portrait of Dr. Gachet”: $149.7 million (1990 equivalent of)

Christie’s, May 1990

Despite arguments over its authenticity, one of the most revered paintings by the Dutch artist Van Gogh depicts Dr. Paul Gachet, who took care of the artist during the final months of his life. Sad but gentle, clear and intelligent, the doctor melancholy face carries "the heartbroken expression of our time”.


Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, 1890, oil on canvas, 680 mm (26.77 in); Width: 570 mm (22.44 in), © Musée d’Orsay.


3. Amedeo Modigliani "Nu Couché": $170.4 million

Christie’s New York, November 9th 2015

The price set a world record for a Modigliani’s nude. This one was bought by a Chinese couple, Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, for their private Museum in Shanghai. According to Christie’s, during Modigliani's first and only show in Paris, the crowd was outraged by its nudity and fusion of classical idealism, sensual realism and modernist invention.


Amedeo Modigliani “Nu Couché” 1917. Courtesy Wikidata


2. Pablo Picasso "Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O)": $179.4 million

Christies New York, May 11th 2015

As might have been expected, the title of most expensive painting was once again returned to Picasso in May 2015 through his “Les Femmes d’Alger”.  Throughout his life, Picasso would always compare himself to the other European greats, such as Delacroix, on whose own “Les Femmes d’Alger” this work is based. 

As previously stated, there have been many paintings sold privately for higher prices than some of those on our list, so here is briefly listed the few works from some of the biggest names in art history that would lie between our Nos. 2 and 1.

Rembrandt's "Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit" — $180 million

Mark Rothko's "No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red)" — $186 million

Jackson Pollock's "Number 17A" — $200 million

Paul Gauguin's "Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)" — $210 million

Paul Cézanne's "The Card Players" — $250 million

Willem de Kooning's "Interchange" — $300 million


Pablo Picasso "Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O)" 1955. Courtesy Artnews


1. Leonardo da Vinci "Salvator Mundi": $450.3 million

Christie’s New York, November 15th 2017

Steeped in controversy, this sale set the art world alight at the end of 2017, with “Salvator Mundi” not only breaking all records but also genuinely shocking people, so unprecedented was its vast price tag. Due to go on display at the new Abu Dhabi Louvre last year, people are beginning to question its whereabouts as its display has been prolonged “indefinitely”.


Leonardo da Vinci "Salvator Mundi" c.1500, Courtesy


Cover image: Pablo Picasso "Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O)" 1955. Courtesy Artnews

Written by Marcus Howard-Vyse and Petra Chiodi

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world. 

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