Most Expensive Artworks Sold at Auction

Art Market

The 20 Most Expensive Artworks Sold at Auction in 2018

Nate Freeman
Dec 24, 2018 1:00PM

While the auction landscape this year didn’t have a blockbuster on the scale of 2017 when Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold for $450.3 million, this year’s 20 most expensive lots showed a healthy market that continued to churn out new records for major artists, despite many top lots selling on just a few bids or less. Collectors fought over paintings, furniture, and ephemera from the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, which racked up $832.6 million in sales—the most for an estate in history. Asian collectors continued to muscle their way into the top echelon of the auction world, both by securing major works at sales in New York and by buying big lots during sales in Hong Kong and Beijing.

And while there are plenty of fireworks below, it also serves as a reminder that the biggest stories of the year can sometimes get obscured when ordering a year’s results strictly in terms of price paid. Diddy made history he spent $21.1 million on Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times (1997), making him the most expensive living black artist, but that work did not crack the top 50 lots of the year. And Jenny Saville became the most expensive living female artist when a work of hers sold for $12.4 million, but that lot failed to crack the top 100.

Below, the top 20 auction lots of the year.


Amedeo Modigliani, Nu Couché (Sur Le Côté Gauche), 1917

Sotheby’s New York, May 14, 2018

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), 1917. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Amedeo Modigliani’s cherished reclining nudes rarely come to auction, so when Irish horse breeder John Magnier consigned the largest one ever made to Sotheby’s, the auction house gave it a whopping $150 million presale estimate—the highest ever assigned to a work in auction history. Bidding that had been expected from Asian collectors failed to materialize, however, and the work failed to find a bidder on the phones and in the sales room. It went to the single irrevocable bid arranged before the sale. Still, the Modigliani was the most expensive thing ever sold at Sotheby’s, and the fourth–most expensive work ever sold at auction. Not too shabby.


Pablo Picasso, Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, 1905

Christie’s New York, May 8, 2018

Pablo Picasso, Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, 1905. Courtesy of Christie’s.


The star lot of the Rockefeller estate, touted as the “Sale of the Century” in Christie’s extensive marketing campaign, Pablo Picasso’s rare Rose Period masterpiece carried a $100 million estimate and an impeccable provenance, having been purchased by David Rockefeller from the estate of Gertrude Stein. But perhaps the fact that it so starkly presented a naked teenage girl, who was likely a prostitute, was a bit racy for some bidders, making the very small pool of potential buyers—collectors who can spend $100 million on a single painting—even smaller. When it came up for auction, the saleroom heard crickets: There was just one bidder, someone on the telephone with former post-war and contemporary head Loïc Gouzer, and they got it at a $102 million hammer, or $115 million with fees. The New York Times later revealed that it was purchased by the Nahmad family, and the prominent dealer-collectors loaned the work to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris for an exhibition this fall.


Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929

Christie’s New York, November 13, 2018

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929. Courtesy of Christie’s.

An iconic work by an American master from the Ebsworth collection, Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey was estimated to sell for $70 million, though some thought that the thirst for an instantly recognizable painting could push bidding above $100 million. It didn’t quite get there, but those present witnessed a vigorous back-and-forth between Gouzer and Eric Widing, the Christie’s specialist who worked closely with Barney Ebsworth to build his collection, and the work hammered with Gouzer at $85 million.


David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972

Christie’s New York, November 15, 2018

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Courtesy of Christie’s.

In an intriguing strategy alien to the guarantee-led era of backdoor auction deals, consignor Joe Lewis insisted that Christie’s offer his double portrait by David Hockney without a reserve. So when auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen opened at $18 million, a rush of bidding in the salesroom and the phones at Christie’s pushed the price to $55 million. From there, the jousting continued between four Christie’s specialists, before the painting hammered at $80 million—exactly its presale estimate—to Marc Porter. With fees, the price was $90.3 million—and with that, Hockney dethroned Jeff Koons as the world’s most expensive living artist.


Kasimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition, 1916

Christie’s New York, May 15, 2018

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition, 1916. Courtesy of Christie’s.

This painting by Kasimir Malevich measures only 2 feet by 3 feet, but it packs a ton of cash into that small space—it’s now worth $99,320 per square-inch of canvas. This rare “Suprematist Composition” was purchased at Christie’s by Brett Gorvy—the house’s former post-war chairman and present co-owner of Lévy Gorvy—for $76 million, or $85.8 million with buyer’s fees. The price, which came in above a $70 million high estimate, set a new record for the Russian artist.


Claude Monet, Nymphéas en fleur, ca. 1914–17

Christie’s New York, May 8, 2018

Claude Monet, Nymphéas en fleur, circa 1914-17. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Asian bidders have become enthralled with Claude Monet in recent years, and the addition of a Rockefeller provenance convinced one buyer from the region to bid high enough to break the artist’s record this May. Though estimated to sell for $50 million, Nymphéas en fleur greatly eclipsed that when Xin Li Cohen out-bid her fellow Christie’s specialists with an offer of $75 million, which won the lot.


Henri Matisse, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, 1923

Christie’s New York, May 8, 2018

Henri Matisse, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, 1923. Courtesy of Christie’s.

This work by Henri Matisse from the Rockefeller sale also set an artist’s record—and it, too, was captured by Xin Li Cohen on behalf of a phone bidder. The hammer was $71.5 million, just over the high estimate of $70 million, as Cohen edged out Gouzer to again give the victory to an Asian collector.


Constantin Brâncuși, La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard), 1932

Christie’s New York, May 15, 2018

Constantin Brancusi, La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard), 1928. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Estimated at $70 million, this sculpture of the shipping heiress and muse Nancy Cunard hammered below expectations at $63 million to the bidder on the phone with Gouzer. But it managed to break the record for Constantin Brâncuși, besting La muse endormie (1913), which sold for $57.3 million in May 2017.


Willem de Kooning, Woman as Landscape, ca. 1954–55

Christie’s New York, November 13, 2018

Willem de Kooning, Woman as Landscape, circa 1954-55. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Christie’s set a new record for Willem de Kooning when this work hammered at $61 million, just over a $60 million low estimate, to the bidder on the phone with Alex Rotter. But such a mark doesn’t come close to prices achieved by a number of works by the artist sold privately, including Interchange (1955), which David Geffen sold for $300 million to hedge funder Kenneth Griffin.

$69,435,900 (£49,827,000)

Pablo Picasso, Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter), 1937

Sotheby’s London, February 28, 2018

Pablo Picasso, Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter), 1937. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The Picasso market got an early adrenaline shot to the heart during the impressionist and modern art evening sales in London in late February. In what was described as an unprecedented run for a single advisor, Harry Smith of the British firm Gurr Johns bought 13 Picassos in two days to the tune £112.7 million ($155.2 million). A large chunk of the total was spent on a portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, the artist’s golden muse, which was estimated to sell for £32 million, but hammered at £44 million. Though Smith was in the room, he chose to bid through Lord Mark Poltimore while talking on a cellphone in his seat, and Lord Poltimore secured the work for a total of £49.8 million with fees.

$65,197,304 ($HK 510,371,000)

Zao Wou-­Ki, Juin-­Octobre 1985, 1985

Sotheby’s Hong Kong, September 30, 2018

Zao Wou-Ki, Juin-Octobre 1985, 1985. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

When the Taiwanese businessman Chang Qiu Dun put this massive Zao Wou-Ki work up for auction, he was expecting a decent return on his investment: He spent $2.3 million on the work in 2005, and it was estimated to sell for $44.6 million. But the upside became much higher once the winning bid was placed by the collector on the phone with Sotheby’s managing director for Asia, Sebastian Fahey, for a $HK 450 million ($57 million) hammer price, or $HK 510.3 million ($65.1 million) with fees. The price had increased 2,735 percent since the work last changed hands.

$59,253,580 ($HK 463,600,000)

Su Shi, Wood and Rock, 1071–1101

Christie’s Hong Kong, November 26, 2018

Su Shi, Wood and Rock. Courtesy of Christie’s.

A master who made works on scrolls in the 11th and 12th centuries, Su Shi is referred to as the “Chinese da Vinci.” And while Christie’s tried to whip up a Salvator Mundi–style frenzy for Wood and Rock when it went to auction in Hong Kong in November, it only attracted three bidders, and eventually sold for $HK 410 million, or $HK 463.6 million with fees, which comes to $59.5 million. Though nothing to turn a nose up at, the result missed the record for the highest price paid for a Chinese painting by just about $4 million.

$57,864,252 (£41,859,000)

Pablo Picasso, La Dormeuse, 1932

Phillips London, March 8, 2018

Pablo Picasso, La Dormeuse, 1932. Courtesy of Phillips.

Phillips had its best sale ever in March, thanks in a large part to the overperformance of this Picasso portrait of Walter. Expected to sell for a high of £18 million ($24.8 million), it instead hammered at £37 million ($50.9 million), or £41.8 million ($57.6 million) with fees, to Phillips Europe deputy chairman Marianne Hoet, who beat out Brett Gorvy in the room to secure the trophy painting.


Jackson Pollock, Composition with Red Strokes, 1950

Christie’s New York, November 13, 2018

Jackson Pollock, Composition with Red Strokes, 1950. Courtesy of Christie’s

Christie’s was hoping that this drip painting by Jackson Pollock would score another record for a canonical American artist in its standalone sale of the Ebsworth estate, and the Pollock’s $50 million estimate certainly put his $58.3 million record within striking distance. But when Composition with Red Strokes came up, it stalled after a dearth of bidding and sold to dealer Doris Ammann, seated in the front row, for a $49 million hammer, or $55.4 million with fees.


Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait, 1977

Christie’s New York, May 17, 2018

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait, 1977. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Any portrait by Francis Bacon of his lover George Dyer is a coveted picture, and yet this fresh-to-market painting exceeded already-high expectations—estimated to sell for $30 million, it instead went for $49.8 million with fees. The painting was captured by Ana Maria Celis, the head of the evening sale, who secured it on behalf of her client by bidding $44 million, beating out Renato Pennisi, director of Christie’s Italy.


Jean­-Michel Basquiat, Flexible, 1984

Phillips New York, May 17, 2018

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flexible, 1984. Courtesy of Phillips.

Quality works by Jean-Michel Basquiat have made the artist one of the most consistent sellers in the contemporary market, and Phillips scored one of the biggest lots in its history when Flexible, a painting Basquiat made on a picket fence he found near his studio, hammered at $40 million, above a $20 million high estimate. It went to the client on the phone with Miety Heiden, Phillips’s deputy chairman and head of private sales, who beat out Svetlana Marich, Robert Manley, and Jean-Paul Engelen on the phones, as well as Basquiat’s friend and champion Jeffrey Deitch, who was sitting in the saleroom.

$41,391,324 (CNY 287,500,000)

Pan Tianshou, View from the Peak, 1963

China Guardian Auctions Co., Ltd, November 20, 2018

Pan Tianshou, 无限风光,. Courtesy of China Guardian Auctions Co., Ltd.

Traditional Chinese painter Pan Tianshou, who died in 1971, may not have much name recognition in the U.S. or Europe, but he has proven to be one of the more reliable market stalwarts at Beijing auctions. In 2015, one of his works sold in the Chinese capital for CNY 279 million ($40.1 million) at China Guardian, and in 2017, that record was broken when a painting of a mountain and a stream sold for CNY 345 million ($50.6 million), also at China Guardian. And while View from the Peak failed to secure a new record, it showed that the artist still has market viability, at least in mainland China.


Vincent van Gogh, Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle Saint­-Paul de Mausole (Saint­-Rémy), 1889

Christie’s New York, May 15, 2018

Vincent van Gogh, Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle Saint-Paul de Mausole (Saint-Rémy), 1889. Courtesy of Christie’s.

This work by Impressionist master Vincent van Gogh was once in the collection of Elizabeth Taylor—but it was actually first acquired by her father, who was an art dealer. It was consigned to Christie’s by an anonymous collector, who had purchased it at the actress’s estate sale in 2012 for £10.1 million ($16 million). The price achieved in May more than doubled what the consignor paid, and returned much more than that still when compared to the £92,000 ($257,327) first paid by Taylor in 1963.


Andy Warhol, Double Elvis [Ferus Type], 1963

Christie’s New York, May 17, 2018

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

The embattled former casino magnate Steve Wynn, who has been accused of sexual harassment and was forced to leave his company, hoped to sell off some of his collection in May in order to finance his new career as an art dealer. But when Christie’s damaged Picasso masterpiece Le Marin (1943), estimated to sell for $70 million, Wynn had to bet on the performance of another work he consigned: Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis. It hammered at $33.5 million, or $37 million with fees, over a $33 million low estimate, and was won in the room by Brett Gorvy. Not exactly a royal flush for Wynn.


Pablo Picasso, Le Repos, 1932

Sotheby’s New York, May 14, 2018

Pablo Picasso, Le repos, 1932. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Pulling the damaged Le Marin hurt the chances of Picasso becoming the first artist to have a billion-dollar year, but his market is still as strong as ever, fueled by Gurr Johns’s buying rampage in London in February, as well as strong Asian bidding that continued throughout the year. In the case of Le Repos, it was indeed an Asian collector who pushed up the price, as it was secured by Patti Wong for a $32.5 million hammer, right in the middle of the $25–35 million presale estimate; the price with fees was $36.9 million.

Nate Freeman
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