We human beings have painstakingly advanced to the point of a sophisticated understanding of the material universe but an imperfect sense of the abstract and the spiritual. With that comes a sense of judgment and a way of estimating value that can get rather heated. Hence, we witness the man at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, becoming furious as he stands before what he sees as a meaningless and ugly Rothko “blob,” something which critics consider an artwork of great importance and value.
Why are there huge price tags on paintings? Some may value a work of art by how much effort and sacrifice was needed to create it, or the obvious (to some!) beauty of the outcome, or the sheer creativity and innovation. Others value paintings simply by their ability to yield a financial return, which often causes quite a commotion at auction houses.
However, bearing in mind how often the value of a piece of art is derived from multiple factors, it’s no wonder money becomes the de facto measure of it: Everybody can understand its worth.
Today, there isn’t a Vincent van Gogh going around painting flowers in Montparnasse, or a Rodin sculpting figures in his Parisian workshop. But with factors such as the artist’s prominence, recognition, the rarity of the work, and its sentimental value involved, the price can be high.
The question is how high? With art that was created by long-gone painters, scarcity can compel billionaire collectors and auctioneers to send higher the already staggering prices. When it comes to living artists, on the other hand, they find other ways to raise the value of a work at auction.
From Francis Bacon to Paul Gauguin, we have listed the 10 most expensive paintings ever sold (prices given are those at the time of the sale).
Three Studies of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud is an oil-on-canvas six-foot triptych that sold for $142 million in November 2013. Depicted in the painting is Bacon’s friend and painter (although they would always argue about each other’s art) Lucian Freud, a relative of Sigmund Freud.
Bacon’s three-piece masterpiece was sold to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. It easily surpassed the $85 million estimate after a bout of frantic bidding among seven buyers pushed up the price for the work, which was painted in 1969.
The two hot-tempered artists painted each other several times, beginning in 1951, when Freud first sat for Bacon. Bacon’s and Freud’s friendship wasn’t exactly the smoothest artistic friendship, as it was fueled by hostility and conflicts. But boys will be boys.
Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent van Gogh
One of the most revered paintings by Van Gogh, The Portrait of Dr. Gachet, the medic who cared for him in the final months of the artist’s life, broke many sales records when it was sold in 1990. It was sold to an industrial businessman, Ryoei Saito, for $82.5 million. The painting fascinated the Japanese mogul so much that he controversially stated he wanted to be cremated with it when he died.
Van Gogh created two versions of the painting, with different colors. The second painting is on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The portrait was painted in June 1890 at Auvers-sur-Oise, less than a month before Van Gogh’s suicide, a fact that influenced the value of the painting.
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt
Also called “the Lady in Gold,” this mesmerizing painting by Gustav Klimt sold for $135 million in 2006. Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics magnate, was the lucky buyer of the golden-splotched, record-breaking portrait.
An extraordinary story is hiding behind the painting. It was seized by the Nazis during the World War Two, and it was only reclaimed by the rightful owner’s niece after many years, when she was in her eighties. After a heated court battle, Maria Altmann finally won the lawsuit and reclaimed the “family jewel” as an inheritor in the will of the model’s husband.
Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit by Rembrandt
The pair of full-length wedding portraits were originally owned by the Rothschilds. The Dutch masterpiece was sold to the Louvre Museum and the Rijksmuseum for a staggering $182 million in 2014.
Rembrandt took to the brushes because of the special occasion of the wedding of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit in 1634. Although the subjects were painted individually, the portraits have been kept together since their inception.
The Card Players by Paul Cézanne
The exact price (and even the currency of sale) of Cézanne’s Card Players is not known, but it is was one of five in the oil painting series sold to the Royal Family of Qatar for an estimated $300 million in 2011.
The two stony-faced card players, depicted in all their ambiguity by Cézanne, were from his family’s estate outside Aix-en-Provence–the family gardener and a farmhand that helped around the estate. Painted during Cézanne’s final period in the early 1890s, there are five expressionist paintings in the series that pave the way for the artist’s most prominent later works.
Each scene in the series is depicted in deep tranquility, with emphasis on the players’ stillness and concentration. Amusingly, one critic describes the paintings as a “human still life,” while others feel that the men’s cemented focus mirrors the painter’s focus in his own art. Truly serious business.
When Will You Marry by Paul Gauguin
Gauguin’s paintings are very rarely offered for sale. Always valued in the millions, one of Gauguin’s most revered paintings is the 1892 Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) of a pair of Tahitian girls. Oddly enough, it was only moderately well-received while he was alive, and valued at 1,500 francs by the artist.
However, it is now considered to be the world’s most expensive artwork ever sold. The painting’s owner, the family of Rudolf Staechelin, sold it privately for $300 million in February 2015, with the alleged buyer being the Qatar Museum. Painted during Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti, the artist sought to avoid “everything that is artificial and conventional.”
However, what he found there was not what he had expected. The island had already been colonized, and the Tahitian civilization was subject to Western influence already, much to his dismay. Nevertheless, he decided to depict the native people in a style that was neither realistic nor idealistic but was rather a typical example of Post-Impressionism.
The two women in the painting express the tension between the two cultures–the younger woman is wearing a white flower to signal that she is looking to get married in the Tahitian tradition, while the other one is dressed in a pink dress that clearly belongs to the more sophisticated Western fashion.
Interchange by Willem de Kooning
Forms in this painting appear to be in constant motion, depicting a very visible dynamic, despite the seemingly bland and typical abstract manner it was painted in. The oil on canvas painting was completed in 1955 by Dutch-American expressionist painter Willem de Kooning.
The painting forces the viewer to perceive motion in the abstract expressionist masterpiece, hence the towering price. It was sold for a staggering $300 million by the David Geffen Foundation to Kenneth C. Griffin in September 2015.