Home Magazine Top 10 most expensive artworks sold in 2020

Despite the challenges faced last year with the pandemic and the re-adaptation to the online, the art world witnessed some pretty impressive eight-figure sales. Here is a list of the 10 most expensive artworks sold in 2020!

Related articles: 4 Most Expensive Artworks by Living Artists - Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings Ever Sold - A great start for Sotheby's London

Like any other sector, the Art world has been severely affected by the pandemic we are still facing. Even more so as the Art world has largely been holding on to traditional methods to spread and experience art-related events and it has been long resilient to approaching the digital. If on the one hand it is true that digitalization can modify the aura of an artwork, on the other hand we also do think that the art world may greatly benefit from moving towards it. And, although it may still seem odd, now that some successful strategies have been implemented, one might wonder why this has not been done before or earlier thought as a concrete possibility. An example of that is how art selling works and why it took us so long to move auction into live streams? Or why did it take us so long to invest in the art selling through online platforms? Well, 2020 was a year of adaptation, and most of these adjustments were brilliantly achieved. Despite the difficulties faced with closed doors, the art world managed to achieve some surprisingly impressive sales numbers and records for this unheard-of year. To celebrate those, we created a list of the 2020’s most significant sales.


1. Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981)

Price: $84.6 million

When: June 30

Where: Sotheby’s, livestreamed from Hong Kong, London, and New York

Why: The collector Hans Rasmus Astrup reported he was selling this artwork to raise funds for his private collection in Oslo

This Francis Bacon masterpiece created in 1981 and acquired by the Norwegian billionaire Hans Rasmus Astrup in 1987 had never been in an auction until 2020. Although the demand was not huge, this piece ended being priceless for the two bidders fighting to give the highest values to get the artwork. Ending up with an eight-figure prize, this Francis Bacon artwork earned the title as the third-highest ever price achieved for a Bacon at auction. This monumental work, inspired by Aeschylus’s trilogy of Greek tragedies from the 5th century B.C.E., is one of the largest tryptic in Bacon’s collection. 

Note: There is a Francis Bacon exhibition opening by the 30th of January at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. A must-watch to follow up this great sale of the year plus his 50-year career!


Francis Bacon, “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus”, 1981. Courtesy of Sotheby's


2. Wu Bin, Ten Views of a Lingbi Rock (1610)

Price: RMB 512.9 million ($76.6 million)

When: October 18

Where: Poly Auction, Beijing

According to Poly Culture Group Corp, this artwork, now in the hands of an American Collector, broke the world record sale in 2020 for ancient Chinese calligraphies and paintings. This Ming Dynasty handscroll spiked a bid that lasted over an hour, and it was bid 75 times higher than when it was first ever sold at Sotheby's in 1989. "Ten Views of a Lingbi Rock" is glorified as the "most extraordinary painting of a stone ever created in China" and was commissioned by the collector Mi Wanzhong back in 1610.


Wu Bin, “Ten Views of a Lingbi Rock”, 1610. Courtesy Poly Auctions.


3. Roy Lichtenstein, Nude With Joyous Painting (1994)

Price: $46.2 million

When: July 10

Where: Christie’s “One” sale, livestreamed from Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York

“Nude With Joyous Painting” joins Francis Bacon’s tryptic at its first auction major sale in 2020. Achieving the third highest sale ofLichtenstein works ever! This painting had passed through several hands throughout the years until it reached the third place for the most expensive sale of the year in the art world. This Lichtenstein’s painting is a late classic of the artist’s signature style, inspired by comic books. It was described by Ana Maria Celis (Christies Co-Head of post-war and contemporary art evening sales) as “the most important example of Lichtenstein’s last great series of nudes to have ever appeared at auction.” 


Roy Lichtenstein, “Nude with Joyous Painting”, 1994. Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd. Via artnet News.


4. David Hockney, Nichols Canyon (1980)

Price: $41 million

When: December 7

Where: Phillips New York

This work from the admired artist David Hockney was one of the first paintings after the artist first moved to Los Angeles. A seven-by-five-foot canvas depicts the scenery from Hollywood Hills to his Santa Monica Boulevard studio. With an evident influence from fauvism and cubism, this painting set a record as the artist's highest sale for a landscape. Hockney's highest sale so far has been his pool scenes, selling for $90 million in 2018. This Phillips sale in New York also marked a 25% increase in sales compared to the previous fall sale- an admirable increase considering the present situation worldwide.  


David Hockney, “Nichols Canyon”, 1980. Courtesy of Phillips. Via Artsy.


5. Ren Renfa, Five Inebriated Princes Riding Home (late 13th–early 14th century)

Price: $39.4 million (HK$307 million)

When: October 8

Where: Sotheby’s Hong Kong

“Five Inebriated Princes Riding Home”, a rare classical Chinese scroll, set a record price at Sotheby’s last October. This 700-year-old painting by Ren Renfa elicited over one hundred bids in a seventy-five-minute ‘war’.  This ended up being purchased by the Long Museum in Shanghai, one of the world's best ancient Chinese art collections.


Ren Renfa, “Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback”, n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s. Via Artsy


6. Cy Twombly, Untitled (Bolsena) (1969)

Price: $38.7 million

When: October 6

Where: Christie’s 20th Century Sale, New York

Although not a record sale for Cy Twombly, this work was sold by over its lowest estimate ($35 million). Formerly part of the Saatchi Collection, this work is part of the “Bolsena” series, with 14 mixed-medium/techniques paintings produced around the Apollo 11 space mission. This work contemplates space and time as the man landed its first steps on the moon. The rest of the collection resides in other collections such as in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.


Cy Twombly, “Untitled [Bolsena]”, 1969. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020. Via Artsy.


7. Sanyu, Quatre Nus (1950s)

Price: $33.3 million (HK$258.3 million)

When: July 8

Where: Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Compared with Matisse and Zao Wou Ki, this artwork from the Chinese French artist, features his iconic female nude women, lying on their stomach within a rich and deep green background. This work was created for a solo exhibition in the National Museum of History in Taipei and took the top lot at Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale in July. With an intense 10-minute bidding battle for the largest work of a set of three similar paintings, this painting set a record for its previous sale of $25.2 million.


Sanyu, “Quatre nus”, 1950s. Courtesy of Sotheby’s. Via ArtNews.


8. Mark Rothko, Untitled (1967)

Price: $31.3 million

When: October 6

Where: Christie’s 20th Century Sale, New York

Sold by the billionaire and art collector Ronald Perelman, through Christie's New York sale, this deep maroon-red Mark Rothko was one of the evening's significant sales. Although its hype, this painting failed to meet its low estimate of $30 million. It was also subject of an 11th-hour third-party guarantee. This was last sold in 1998 for $1.2 million before it privately was acquired by Perelman in 2002. This Mark Rothko painting is part of his late-career paintings, being part of a unique collection of his only four finished paintings before he died.


Mark Rothko, “Untitled”, 1967. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020. Via Artsy.


9. Brice Marden, Complements (2004–07)

Price: $30.9 million

When: July 10

Where: Christie’s “One” sale

This Brice Marden artwork is an excellent example of a late vibrant style and a great example of the artist's beliefs of the frame within the painting: "The rectangle is a great human invention." Such statement and practice were developed during an early time when all the other artists were trying to free themselves from the frame. This painting was sold by the estate of former MoMA board president Donald Marron, marking a new auction record for the artist. His previous high sale was set in November 2019 at $10.9 million. This was sold by $30.9 million, closer to the low estimate of $28 million. 


Brice Marden, “Complements”, 2004–07. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020. Via Artsy.


10. Barnett Newman, Onement V (1952)

Price: $30.9 million

When: July 10

Where: Christie’s “One” sale

Barnett Newman was part of a generation of artists such as Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock, in which he believed in that art should be focused on the search of truth instead of beauty. With this mindset, he produced abstract paintings with an iconic signature of his style: the zip – a vertical line centred in the canvas between contrasting colours. This painting was also highly hyped and expected to be a high sale as this was one of the first paintings where the artist developed his signature style. But this painting sold below way below the expectation, barely making it over the low minimum of $30 million. This painting was sold to a bidder on the phone for $30.9 million. 


Barnett Newman, “Onement V”, 1952. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.



We can conclude that the Asian rare artworks are conquering art collectors' hearts with detailed precision and nude tones. Also, as excepted, abstract art is an all-time favourite to bring colour to any art collection or home décor. We expected David Hockney to be at a higher value this year. On the other hand, Francis Bacon, although hugely admired, 2020 highest sale was unexpected. But a good outcome with high-value figures within a time of struggle and adaptation in the art world. 

Also, check out our last post (The Exhibitions everyone is awaiting to see in 2021) to see in more depth all the information for crucial exhibitions happening in London in 2021. Some such as "David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020" and "Francis Bacon: Man and Beast", both at The Royal Academy of Arts, which will be a good follow up to understand these artists highest sales in 2020. 


Cover image: Roy Lichtenstein, “Nude with Joyous Painting”, 1994. Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd. Via artnet News.

Written by Tania Teixeira

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