What makes a painting worth more than $100m?

May 24, 2017

A painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Following the sale of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat for $110.5m at auction, Ian Welsh discusses the growing trend of art pieces selling for nine figure sums, and what factors can drive this kind of sale.


When Jean-Michel Basquiat’s untitled painting of a skull sold for $110.5m at Sotheby’s in Manhattan, the art world was once again left debating just what it is that makes high-end art sell for millions.
Brooklyn-born Basquiat’s “Untitled” (1982), was bought by Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa. After a tense 10 minute bidding war, Maezawa’s $110.5m bid made the painting the highest-selling piece by an American artist in history.

The super-rich like Maezawa seem to be keener than ever to get their hands on top-end art, and in the last few years nine figure sums have become less and less unheard of. But what factors ensure that a painting sells for this kind of money?

Reputation of the artist

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci was able to attract $127.5m, partly due to the strength of the Renaissance painter’s name.

While art has a reputation for being esoteric, there are some artists whose names alone can push the financial values of their wares into the hundreds of millions. As with any market, established, trusted names can have a big impact on the sale price of an asset.

Works by household names like Leonardo da Vinci have sold for stunning amounts, with the Renaissance polymath’s “Salvator Mundi” fetching $127.5m in 2013. Even that was beaten by Rembrandt’s “Pendant portraits” in 2013, after a member of the Rothschild banking family sold it to a consortium of museums for a tidy $180m. The recognition factor, while not enough to guarantee a sale, is undoubtedly a valuable asset.

Age of the piece


Cézanne’s ‘The Card Players’ sold for $259m in 2011, stunning the art world. The age of the piece was certainly a factor; it was painted in 1890.

As with all markets, scarcity has the power to drive up prices.
Buyers are more likely to want to snap something up if they know that this is their only chance to get hold of a piece by a certain artist, and this motive may well have been at work with Maezawa’s recent purchase – Basquiat’s painting hadn’t been on the market since the 1980s, so the chance to get hold of it must have seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

While for more recent pieces it tends to be artist inactivity which causes values to skyrocket, several other expensive sales fall into this category purely because the piece is so old.

Take “The Card Players”, by Cézanne, which sold to the State of Qatar for a whopping $259m in 2011. Cézanne produced the piece in the 1890s, which made it well over a century old by the time it came to be auctioned. Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, which was painted just after the turn of the century in 1907, is another prime example of long legacies pushing up market values.

Like fine wines – and, perhaps, most luxury goods – the market clearly believes that art only gets better with age. While buyers may take lots of other factors into consideration before they commit themselves, it is clear that the older and rarer the piece, the more likely it is to have a higher investment value.

State of the art market


De Kooning’s Interchange is the most expensive painting of all time, selling for $300m. This was likely influenced by a string of nine-figure sales in the preceding months.

Wider conditions have an impact on any industry’s fortunes, and only the entrepreneurially-minded risk-takers of the collector universe will be happy to shell out their cash in an uncertain, jumpy art market.

For that reason, it’s no coincidence that three of the four most expensive pieces of artwork ever sold all got their new owners in the same year. 2015 was a fabulous year for top-end sales, with works by de Kooning (most expensive ever), Gauguin (second-most) and Pollock (fourth-most) all selling within eight months.

The wider art market saw sales of $16.1bn that year, suggesting that like any savvy purchaser, the clever collector will only move when the time is right. While 2016 saw a drop in sales compared to the year before, no doubt the market will pick up once again as collector confidence comes back in future years.

The day of the auction


Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) by Pablo Picasso was the subject of an intense bidding war between five different bidders at auction. The hammer fell at $179.4m.

Yet even a big name, conditions of undersupply and a buoyant art market can’t beat the battle of wills between several rich, determined bidders.

Sometimes, all it takes to push a sale into astronomical, record-breaking figures is to have a bidding war on the floor of the auction house when the big day rolls around. Pablo Picasso’s 1955 “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” smashed all known auction records in 2015, when five potential buyers bettered each other’s offers in nerve-wracking increments of $1m before it sold to a Qatari politician for $179.4m.

A similar, fast-escalating bidding war took place in 2015 with the sale of the original version of Modigliani’s famous canvas “Nu couché”. As with the Picasso, it sold on the floor of Christie’s in New York, but this time with six bidders all competing and driving up the price. It took just nine minutes for the most committed buyer, Chinese collector Liu Yiqian, to triumph.

Overall, there is no guaranteed key to selling a piece at a high price and beating the coveted $100m mark. But the history of the market shows that, with a lot of skill and a bit of luck, it’s getting easier and easier to predict which high-end works will be the next to enter the record books of the art world.

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