Most Expensive Artworks Sold at Auction

Art Market

The 10 Most Expensive Works Sold in 2019

Annie Armstrong
Dec 26, 2019 1:00PM

The past several years in auction house news have been marked by jaw-dropping records, but in 2019, the drama didn’t only happen during the actual auctions. Perhaps the largest piece of news was that Sotheby’s had its final round of auctions as a public company, as the house went private with French-Israeli media magnate Patrick Drahi at the helm.

Below, we have the 10 most expensive pieces of art sold at auction this year. The pieces exclusively sold from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and almost entirely out of their New York salesrooms. The privatization of Sotheby’s could position it to be better able to compete with Christie’s, which is already privately held.

A remarkable number of the most expensive pieces sold at auction in 2019 were created after the year 1960, indicating a strong market for contemporary work. As last year, they were all works by male artists. This year saw several records set by living artists (even aside from Koons, whom we’ll get to in a moment). Among those artists are market superstar KAWS—who set his personal best in auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for a staggering $14.8 million—and, in a similarly out-of-the-blue manner, Banksy made his personal best in the fall in London with Devolved Parliament (2009) selling for $12.2 million.

However, those numbers are small potatoes compared to the 10 priciest works bought from auction houses over the course of this year.


Claude Monet, Meules, 1890

Sotheby’s New York, May 14, 2019

Claude Monet, Meules , 1890. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

This piece from the iconic French painter’s “Haystacks” series set not only the artist’s personal record, but also the record for any Impressionist piece ever sold at auction. The piece nearly exactly doubled its flat estimate of $55 million. These numbers reflect a significant shift in the art market over the past 30-odd years: The last time this painting sold at auction was in 1986, for $2.5 million. Before that sale, the piece had lived in the private collection of famed Impressionist art collector Bertha Honoré Palmer, who bought it straight from Paul Durand-Ruel—the Impressionist master’s dealer—in the decade it was created.

Julian Dawes—Sotheby’s senior vice president, head of evening sales, and co-deputy head of department for Impressionist and modern art in New York—said of the work: “We seldom see works of such extraordinary caliber and immense symbolism come on the market, and because of that rarity, we saw fierce competition among collectors for this exceptional painting.”

Compared to the other works in Monet’s “Haystacks” series—all executed within a short window in the late 1880s and early ’90s—Meules separates itself through the vibrant burst of colors used to depict a sunset in the northern French village of Giverny.


Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986

Christie’s New York, May 15, 2019

Jeff Koons, Rabbit , 1986. Courtesy of Christie's.


While 2018 saw David Hockney become the most expensive living artist at auction, a mixture of groans and gasps were heard around the world as Jeff Koons reclaimed that title this past May with the sale of Rabbit (1986) for $91.1 million at Christie’s New York; the work had previously belonged to the late publishing mogul and mega-collector S.I. Newhouse. Rabbit encompasses the signature flash and playfulness we’ve come to associate with the controversial Neo-Pop artist. After the sale, New York Times critic Roberta Smith penned a piece in defense of the much-debated work, headlined: “Stop Hating Jeff Koons.” She wrote that “Rabbit is intractable, a little warrior, yet it also vanishes into its reflections, which are full of us looking at it.”

Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of post-war and contemporary art, said the house took extra measures in marketing the piece to collectors. “When we presented Rabbit to the market, we wanted to properly contextualize it as a contemporary masterpiece,” he explained, “as the ‘anti-David’ that signaled the death of traditional sculpture—disrupting the medium in the same way that Jackson Pollock’s Number 31 [1950] permanently redefined the notion of painting.”

Clearly, that approach worked, as the piecejust barely edged above Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972), which had sold for $90.3 million in November 2018. Will the record ping pong back over to Hockney in 2020? Here’s to staying tuned.


Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II, 1964

Christie’s New York, May 15, 2019

Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II , 1964. Courtesy of Christie's.

In the same year that many critics noted how the Whitney’s 2019 biennial was heavily influenced by the artist famed for his works rooted in assemblage, this particularly political piece by Robert Rauschenberg sold for a remarkable sum. The piece collages wholly American iconography, from a bald eagle to the Coca-Cola label to a mid-sentence John F. Kennedy—his pointed finger duplicated. Buffalo II (1964) serves as an homage to the hopefulness and patriotism associated with the political arena of the 1960s, and a testament to its chaos and disorder. These images—often appropriated from magazines and newspapers—fight for the viewer’s attention through harsh, bright primary colors. The energetic canvas stands at over eight feet tall, a domineering portrait of a time in the United States that is romanticized as frequently as it is scorned.


Paul Cezanne, Bouilloire et fruits, 1888–90

Christie’s New York, May 13, 2019

Paul Cezanne, Bouilloire et fruits , 1888–90. Courtesy of Christie's.

One of the older lots on this list, Bouilloire et fruits has seen at least nine owners in its lifetime, traveling between Europe, Africa, and North America. Like many jet-set paintings over 100 years old, the piece had once been stolen—in Cézanne’s case, from a residence in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1978. At the time that it was stolen, the painting was valued at a mere $600,000, which is chump change compared to its 2019 price.

This piece is also remarkable for its quintessential Cézanne-ness. The fruits he paints are just on the brink of rolling off the table, their implied motion challenging the genre of the still life itself. The artist was known for his protracted, tedious practice, taking his time with each and every paint stroke applied to canvas: He made this work over the course of three years.


Pablo Picasso, Femme Au Chien, 1962

Sotheby’s New York, May 14, 2019

Pablo Picasso, Femme Au Chien , 1962. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

One of art history’s greatest dog lovers must certainly be Pablo Picasso. Several of the Cubist’s portraits feature sitters who are painted alongside a dog, and this one in particular features Kaboul, his Afghan hound, staring out at the viewer with a loveable directness exclusive to man’s best friend.

Kaboul is so attention-grabbing in this painting, it’s easy to forget he’s standing at attention with the artist’s wife, Jacqueline Roque. This is one of six portraits that Picasso painted of the duo, highlighting Roque’s affection for Kaboul, as well as Picasso’s love for the both of them together. He even once remarked: “Often, if [Kaboul] comes into my mind when I am working, it alters what I do. The nose on the face I am drawing gets longer and sharper. The hair of the woman I am sketching gets longer and fluffy.” Perhaps an argument could be made that the artist’s greatest muse was, in fact, four-legged.


Andy Warhol, Double Elvis [Ferus Type], 1963

Christie’s New York, May 15, 2019

Andy Warhol, Double Elvis [Ferus Type] , 1963. Courtesy of Christie's.

This list wouldn’t be complete without a Warhol. The bracketed part of this iconic work’s title comes from the name of the Los Angeles gallery that showed Warhol’s work: the Ferus Gallery, which shuttered in 1966. He created nearly two dozen of these “Ferus Type” portraits of Elvis, which were shown at the gallery. During its heyday, the West Hollywood space, run by Irving Blum, presented work by artists such as Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, and Ed Kienholz at the beginning of their careers. Dubbed “The Cool School,” the gallery’s roster was known for being made up of “good-looking men; they were surfers and beatniks and hard-living, hard-drinking, womanizing artists,” as Morgan Neville, director of the 2008 documentary The Cool School, put it.


Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2, 1964

Christie’s New York, November 13, 2019

Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2 , 1964. Courtesy of Christie's.

Speaking of the Ferus Gallery, one of Los Angeles’s most famed artists, Ed Ruscha, had his first solo show with the space in 1963. Over 50 years later, he’s become a market superstar, and this year, the sale of Hurting the Word Radio #2 smashed the 82-year-old artist’s auction record—soaring above his previous record of $30.4 million, achieved in 2014 for his 1963 work Smash (which was originally displayed at Ferus Gallery).

Hurting the Word Radio #2 was positioned to break that record by the auction house, which had heavily marketed the piece by displaying it in its London location during Frieze Week in the British capital. The piece was estimated to sell for a figure between $30 million and $40 million, putting Ruscha’s former record at the low end of its estimated worth. Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of post-war and contemporary art, noted of the piece’s sale at a press conference after the auction: “We wanted to prove we could sell a painting over $50 million this season.”


Francis Bacon, Study for a Head, 1952

Sotheby’s New York, May 16, 2019

Francis Bacon, Study for a Head , 1952. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Francis Bacon famously distorted Diego Velázquez’s seminal 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X to create the “Screaming Popes” series of jarring, visceral portraits of popes. Study for a Head sees his holy countenance from a much closer vantage point than the traditional, full-body angle as seen in Velázquez’s portrait. This piece set the record for works from the series, trumping the previous record of $29.7 million achieved by Untitled (Pope) (1954) in 2012. Study for a Head was sold from the collection of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, though it was originally bought by Jackson Pollock’s biographer Bernard H. Friedman in 1952, the year the piece was created. In 1952 alone, Bacon made six portraits, and the other five are currently held by Tate Britain and the Yale Center for British Art.


Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960

Sotheby’s New York, May 16, 2019

Mark Rothko, Untitled , 1960. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

At the beginning of 2019, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced that it would be deaccessioning this Mark Rothko painting. The museum’s director, Neal Benezra, explained that the proceeds from its sale would go to “broadly diversify SFMOMA’s collection, enhance its contemporary holdings, and address art-historical gaps in order to continue to push boundaries and embrace fresh ideas.” However, the decision was controversial, and sparked a conversation about when it is appropriate for a museum to deaccession a piece.

After the auction’s success, it was revealed that the proceeds did indeed go to diversifying SFMOMA’s collection through the acquisition of 11 works by 10 artists, including Alma Thomas, Lygia Clark, and Mickalene Thomas, as well as the creation of a new endowment fund.


David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, 1969

Christie’s London, March 6, 2019

David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott , 1969. Courtesy of Christie's.

Though Koons may have bested the 82-year-old Brit for the title of top living artist at auction, Hockney still had a fairly remarkable year, auction-wise.The only lot on this list that did not sell in New York, this 1969 piece is one of Hockney’s double portraits featuring two people important to the artist: Henry Geldzahler—a prominent curator and friend who once was New York’s commissioner of cultural affairs—alongside Hockney’s then-partner, the artist Christopher Scott. In this work, Hockney departs from his beloved Los Angeles to capture the duo in Geldzahler’s irresistibly Art Deco apartment in New York. The “Double Portraits” by Hockney—of which there are seven, all executed between 1968 and 1975—are also noted for their sheer size: Each measures an imposing 7 by 10 feet.

Annie Armstrong
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