Top 20 Most Expensive Pieces of Modern Art 2016-2021
January 5, 2021
Before revealing the most expensive pieces of modern art and paintings between 2016-2021, let us first take a step back into history and talk a bit about fine art sales at their peak (tip: you may also want to read our article on the Most Expensive Paintings Ever Sold on Auction as of 2021).
2015 was a milestone year in the valuation and trading of the most expensive modern and abstract paintings and art in the world. Art collectors had every reason to feel good at that moment, as auction data has revealed modern art was defying the general slowdown in 2015’s global auction market. Sales of fine Impressionist, Modern, and Contemporary works all achieved outstanding prices that year and contributed to the US being one of the few international auction markets to show an increase in sales compared to 2014 figures.
Picasso was 2015’s highest earner overall, with 2800 works achieving total sales of $652.9 million. The artist’s ‘L’femme d’Alger (Version 0)’ was also the year’s most expensive single Modern painting, selling at auction in May for $170.4 million. In January 2015 it emerged that Pablo Picasso’s granddaughter – Marina Picasso – will be selling seven of her grandfather’s paintings for an estimated combined value of £200 million, as well as the Cannes villa where he spent his later years. Rather than go down the auction route of selling, Ms Picasso said she was accepting private bids for what was to become one of the most expensive pieces of modern art of that year.
So what was available?
Details of the works on sale were unclear, but some sources said that a portrait of Marina’s mother Olga Khokhlova was included, painted in 1923, and valued at £40m. Another early piece that is not in Picasso’s iconic Cubist style was the 1921 piece Maternité, valued at £35m. The full list of pieces up for sale has not been released, however, and Ms. Picasso herself has made no statement – the announcement of the sale came from a friend of the legendary painter’s granddaughter.
More to come?
This is not the first time Marina Picasso has sold off her grandfather’s work – in 2014 she sold two pieces, at the time indicating that there would be more on the way. The proceeds from those sales went mainly towards the Marina Picasso Foundation, which supports poor children in Vietnam. Her decision to sell the batch of paintings privately is said to stem from the fact that she was unimpressed with the £5 million they received at Sotheby’s’ Paris.
It is thought that Ms. Picasso is in possession of somewhere in the region of 400 paintings and 7,000 sketches by the Spanish artist. Considering that her recent announcement of sales was the second in a short space of time, there was speculation at the time that she could be looking to sell off substantial portions of her collection, potentially creating an influx of new pieces in the art world.
Understandably this has sparked some considerable excitement in the art world at the possibility of new pieces flooding the market, but a question arose as well.
Why was Ms. Picasso selling?
The answer seems complicated. Born to Picasso’s son Paulo, his first child in a short-lived marriage, Marina was largely ignored by the painter throughout his life and spent considerable time living in poverty. Following Picasso’s death, she inherited a portion of his estate, including the paintings which she was now selling.
The most obvious explanation of her reasons to sell is simple; money. But many commentators feel that it could be more complex. The majority of the money from her previous sale went to aiding children in Vietnam, so some have seen this as an effort to make the artist do something for children after his death, something he didn’t do for her. This has led to some people calling this an act of revenge.
2015’s second-most expensive paintings and art across all categories were those of Andy Warhol, with 1400 works realizing $525.6 million at auction. Claude Monet was in third place overall, with sales of $338.6 million for just 33 works, eight of which were the year’s highest-selling Impressionist paintings.
The relatively small number of Monet’s works auctioned in 2015 puts both Picasso and Warhol’s pre-eminence into a better perspective. In fact, figures show it was a year when the question of value versus volume in art was raised on a number of occasions. A mere 13 works by Van Gogh achieved sales of $143.5 million, 33 works by Modigliani realized an astonishing $141.3 million, and just nine works by Mark Rothko were sold at auction for $219 million.
But, the most encouraging signs of continuing health in the fine art market came in the Contemporary category, thanks to the incredible Lichtenstein sale by Christie’s New York in November. Lichtenstein’s ‘Nurse’, painted in 1964 and last auctioned for $1.4 million in 1995, sold in late 2015 for $95 million making it one of the most expensive art in the world at the time. The final bid price exceeded the catalogue estimate by $15 million and broke the artist’s previous auction record of $56.1 million, also achieved by Christie’s New York in 2013.
So, what were the Top 10 most expensive modern paintings in the world at that time?
In light of a painting by Pablo Picasso setting a new world record at auction, selling for $179.4m (£115.2m) in New York, we decided to create an infographic detailing the 10 most expensive paintings ever sold in 2015. The oil painting, Women of Algiers (Version O), is part of a series of 15 paintings created in 1954 and 1955. The successful bid was made via telephone by an anonymous buyer. Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen says the sale was ‘a piece of cultural history’.
In a nutshell, the top 20 modern paintings and art sold in 2016 – 2020 are…
2017 in particular was a bumper year for art sales, with no fewer than three pieces going under the hammer for more than $100m. This is an improvement for the market on the previous year’s relatively slow sales, but doesn’t quite hit the heights of the five $100m+ pieces sold in 2015. However, the number one sale in 2017 was very special indeed. More on that later. First, let’s count down the top 10 most expensive pieces of modern paintings and art of 2017 by price.
A B, ST JAMES – Gerhard Richter
The first of two appearances in this list for German artist Gerhard Richter, his abstract painting A B, ST JAMES sold for $22.7m at Sotheby’s in New York. While Richter may be more notable for painting that use his eerily accurate photorealism technique, his portfolio of work in abstract is also well loved and sought after. The interesting effect of the painting was created by using a squeegee – a long, flat metal surface with a handle – to lay down base colours, before placing detail on top.
Rigide et courbé – Wassily Kandinsky
Selling for $23.3m at Christie’s in New York, Rigide et courbé (Rigid and Curved) by Wassilly Kandinsky was painted in 1935. Kandinsky created the piece while he was living in Paris, and – seeing as he was born in Russia – it’s fair to assume that the French title was chosen in homage to his adopted homeland. Stylistically, it’s similar to a lot of Kandinsky’s other work at the time; abstracts that are characterised by non-geometric lines, and rustic colour palettes.
Les Grandes Artères – Jean Dubuffet
Les Grandes Artères, selling for $23.76m at Christie’s in New York, was part of the French artist’s Paris Circus collection, considered by many to be among his finest and most accomplished work. Indeed, the lion’s share of this collection are on show in some of the world’s most famous art galleries in Paris, New York and Washington D.C. Therefore, it’s little surprise that this piece fetched such a high price when it went up for auction. The vibrant, colourful canvas is an abstract depiction of Paris, the city where Dubuffet spent much of his adult life.
SELF PORTRAIT (FRIGHT WIG) – Andy Warhol
Warhol is one of those names that’s near enough guaranteed to be a massive asset to any piece that it’s attached to. This self-portrait may not have commanded a figure as high as some – such as Eight Elvises which sold for a reported $100m in 2009 – but it still sold for $24.4m at Sotheby’s in New York. The piece is a polaroid picture, taken in 1986, and this sale surely puts it in contention for the most expensive polaroid of all time
Dϋsenjäger – Gerhard Richter
The second piece by Gerhard Richter in this list, Dϋsenjäger sold for $25.56m at Phillips in New York. Perhaps the most famous of Richter’s well-loved warplane series, Dϋsenjäger depicts a jet fighter, using a blur technique that Richter became famous for. While Richter is known for his photorealistic depictions of people and objects, he uses blur in many pieces to give it a unique artistic quality. For Dϋsenjäger, painted in 1963, Richter has used a liberal application of his oft-used blur effect to give the impression that the plane is in flight.
Radha in the Moonlight – Raja Ravi Varma
Selling for the equivalent of $29.4m in Pundole’s, Mumbai, Varma’s Radha in the Moonlight was the only painting in this list to sell outside New York. Though his name may fall on deaf ears in the west, Raja Ravi Varma is a widely celebrated artist in India, often considered among the greatest the country has ever produced. He was a learned man, studying the art techniques of European greats, while infusing what he had learned with a truly Indian zeal. The painting techniques used in Radha in the Moonlight are noticeably western, yet its subject is unmistakably Indian.
A B, STILL – Gerhard Richter
The third piece by Gerhard Richter to appear in this list, A B, STILL sold for $33m at Sotheby’s New York. It was sold as part of the same sale as the other Richter abstract in this list, AB, ST JAMES. It is done in a similar abstract style as AB, ST JAMES, although the colour palette used to create it is much more vibrant and striking. As with many of Richter’s abstracts, a squeegee was used to apply the base coat paint, resulting in broad colour blocks which were then painted over with detail.
PIKENE PÅ BROEN – Edvard Munch
PIKENE PÅ BROEN (or The Girls on the Bridge) by Edvard Munch sold for $54.4m at Sotheby’s in New York. The piece by the Norwegian painter, whose famous painting ‘Scream’ made him a household name, was painted in 1900 and – as the name suggests – depicts a group of women standing on a bridge. Munch was something of a nomad, living in various cities around Europe throughout a long career. The piece was created while was living in Berlin; it’s likely that the city provided his inspiration. Painted in 1902 in bright colours, and depicting an outdoors scene – unlike much of his earlier work – many regard this piece to be one of Munch’s greatest.
Untitled XXV – Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXV – an abstract created in the midst of a flurry of creativity in the 1970s – sold for a cool $66m at Christie’s in New York. The piece had broken a record for the most expensive post-war piece of art when it was sold for $40m in 2005, and has improved upon that sale price by $26m. The Dutch-American artist claimed that, from 1975-1978, pictures flowed out of him “like water.” One small part of that stream of art was Untitled XXV, painted in 1977.
Meule – Claude Monet
As far as artists go, few are elevated to true household name status. Warhol, previously mentioned in this piece, is one. Claude Monet is surely another. The value of that name is often proven when the hammer drops at auctions too; this piece in particular sold for a monumental $81.4m at Christie’s in New York. Famed for his paintings of water lilies, the French artist pioneered a style that would help provide the basis for the impressionism movement. Meule is painted in this style, depicting a haystack in a field in the artist’s native France.
Untitled (2005) – Cy Twombly – $46.4m
This piece by American abstractionist Cy Twombly sold for $46.4m at Christie’s in New York, part of the same sale as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (c. 1500). The piece, painted in 2005, is said to be one of the artist’s last truly great works, ahead of his death in 2011.
Leda and the Swan (1962) – Cy Twombly – $52.9m
The second entry for Twombly in this year’s list, Leda and the Swan (1962) was from much earlier in the artist’s career. The piece was part of a private collection for much of the late 20th Century, which will no doubt have been a factor in its high sale price.
La Muse Endormie (1910) – Constantin Brancusi – $57.4m
This sculpture by Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi sold for $57.4m when the hammer fell at Christie’s New York in May this year. The piece, created in 1910 while the artist was living in Paris, was heavily inspired by the Egyptian, Assyrian, Iberian and Asian art and artifacts at some of the French capital’s most revered museums.
Blumengarten (1907) – Gustav Klimt – $59m
Klimt’s Blumengarten became the third most expensive piece of art to sell in Europe when it sold at Sotheby’s in Mayfair earlier this year. Only Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man, and Peter Paul Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents have fetched a higher price on European soil, selling for $87m and $66.5m in 2010 and 2002 respectively.
Sixty Last Suppers (1986) – Andy Warhol – $60.9m
Warhol is a name that commands high prices in the art market, and it’s never a shock to see one of his pieces in the top 10 art sales of the year. The 32ft painting was among the artist’s final works before his death in 1987, and features 60 black and white silkscreen prints of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Sold alongside Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s in Manhattan (more on that later), Sixty Last Suppers proves that the market for Warhol remains as strong as ever.
Contraste de Formes (1913) – Fernand Léger – $70.1m
Setting a new record price for a piece by Léger, Contraste de Formes – or ‘shape contrast’ in English – sold at Christie’s in Manhattan last month for $70.1m. The piece’s rarity was surely a factor in the eventual sale price; it had never previously been put up for sale at auction.
Laboureur dans un Champ (1889) – Vincent Van Gogh – $81.3m
Like Warhol, Van Gogh is always a guaranteed winner in the art market. The Dutch painter is a household name well beyond the narrow confines of the art world, and any collector would be proud to have one of his pieces sit among their collection. Laboureur dans un Champ was painted in 1889, less than a year before the artist’s death. It was sold as part of the same sale as Contraste de Formes by Fernand Léger, but outstripped the sale price of that piece by more than $10m when the hammer fell.
Untitled (1982) – Jean-Michel Basquiat – $110.5m
Grafitti artist turned fine artist Jean-Michel Basquiat probably would have balked at the prospect of one of his paintings selling for such a fee, had he been alive to witness it. The Brooklyn native was a key part of the thriving New York art scene in the 1980s, when street art and hip hop were at the forefront of the city’s cultural landscape. Untitled was bought by a private collector at a sale in Sotheby’s New York in May.
Masterpiece (1962) – Roy Lichtenstein – $165m
It’s little surprise that Masterpiece fetched such a commanding sum; as one of the most notable early examples of pop art, it would be the dream of any modern art collector to own this piece. Making use of the classic Ben-Day dots art style, along with a speech bubble, it is a classic example of the style that made Lichtenstein famous. The painting hung on the wall of a private collectors Manhattan apartment for decades, before finally being put on sale earlier this year. That rarity factor will no doubt have contributed to the high sale price.
Salvator Mundi (c. 1500) – Leonardo da Vinci – $450.3m
Where to start? Simply one of the most stunning sales of a luxury item of all time. The Salvator Mundi – not universally agreed upon by scholars to have actually been painted by Leonardo Da Vinci – was expected to command a fee of around $100m. After buyer’s premium was added, that fee was more than quadrupled by a Saudi prince following an intense bidding stage between a number of interested parties. This sale is significant for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it is the highest amount ever paid for a single painting, smashing the previous record – the $300m paid for William de Kooning’s Interchange (1955) – by $150m. This sale will live long in the memory, and it will probably hold the world record for some time.
If art is your forte and you have pieces in your collection that you believe to be of value and that you are willing to part with, then valuation and consideration for auction may well be your best option. Here at New Bond Street Pawnbrokers, our knowledgeable experts can provide art collectors like yourself with a quality service and discrete valuations that allow you to stay in control. As a luxury pawnbroker, we understand the value of your items and work alongside specialists who are amongst the most knowledgable in their respective fields, giving you the assurance that all information we provide to you will be both accurate and representative of the true value of your items.
We offer instant credit with minimal paperwork, plus specialist advice throughout. Some of the many artists we loan against include Andy Warhol, Bernard Buffet, Damien Hirst, David Hockney, Marc Chagall, Raoul Duffy, Sean Scully, Tom Wesselmann, Tracey Emin, Banksy, and Roy Lichtenstein to name just a few. If you are looking for a quick overview on our various loans please visit our dedicated fine art loans webpage.