The Most Expensive Artworks Sold at Auction

Art Market

The Most Expensive Artworks Sold in 2020

Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle
Dec 29, 2020 1:00PM

A guard walks past Barnett Newman’s Onement V as Christie’s presents ONE, a global 20th-century art auction spanning four cities in one relay-style format. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP. Image via Getty Images.

In a year of change heavily impacted by COVID-19, the art market has had to adapt to a new normal. The traditional big sessions of May and November in London and New York were replaced by a series of digital events and hybrid spectacles mixing live and virtual, with global live-streamed sales. The digital revolution combined with the boom in private sales helped stem more severe declines in turnover at auctions; still, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s reported drops of 27% in auction sales this year.

This was the first year since 2016 that no lots topped the $100 million mark. The highest prices were conspicuously lower than in previous years. But we also witnessed a watershed moment in the development of the online art market, which was a direct repercussion of COVID-19 restrictions that made physical gatherings impossible and accelerated virtual transformations already underway. Digital auction platforms have proven to be the most popular, which explains the jump in online-only art sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips between January and August this year, where online sales rose to $596.7 million from $168.2 million for all of 2019.

Ren Renfa, detail of Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback, displayed at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on September 23, 2020. Photo by Isaac Lawrence/AFP. Image via Getty Images.


There has been a surge in online bidding and confidence in transacting at high levels—as trust in technology has grown, driven by necessity—and a broadening demographic of buyers under the age of 40 as well as a rise in new art collectors. Sotheby’s online auctions achieved $437 million from January to November 2020, putting it on track for growth of 500% over the previous year. Compared to 2019, the number of new buyers in Christie’s online sales increased by 89%, and first-time online buyers were up 228% year on year. In 2020, Phillips hosted 29 online-only sales, up from 11 in 2019.

Below are the 10 works that commanded the highest prices at public auctions this year. As in 2019, it’s an all-male lineup, with Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, and David Hockney making repeat appearances. Rather than consisting solely of Western artists, Asia is gaining ground with three Chinese artists making the cut in 2020. Their paintings were auctioned by the Hong Kong outpost of Sotheby’s, market leader in Asia for the fifth consecutive year, which saw significant Asian contribution in its sales worldwide, as well as Beijing Poly Auction, China’s largest state-owned auction house.

1. Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981)

Sotheby’s New York, June 29, 2020


Francis Bacon, installation view of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981, in the June 19 Evening Sale at Sotheby, 2020. Photo by Cindy Ord. Image via Getty Images.

This triptych inspired by Aeschylus’s trilogy of Greek tragedies from the 5th century B.C.E. is among Francis Bacon’s most ambitious works, and encompasses the full scope of his iconography. The modern master attempted to recreate the sensations that rereading Aeschylus awakened within him. One of 28 large-scale triptychs in Bacon’s oeuvre, it was the first to appear at auction since 2014 and had been in the hands of Norwegian collector Hans Rasmus Astrup and his private museum in Oslo for more than 30 years.

An online bidder from China competed with a determined client bidding by phone in a dramatic 10-minute battle for the painting, which set a new benchmark for any bid ever cast online—$73.1 million—before it sold to the phone bidder, achieving the third-highest price ever paid for the artist at auction. In a world first for Sotheby’s, the evening sale’s live auction format was conducted remotely by Sotheby’s European chairman and auctioneer Oliver Barker in London, and was live-streamed worldwide from a command center–style studio, while buyers were able to place bids with specialists in New York, Hong Kong, and London by phone or online.

Explore more works by Francis Bacon.

2. Wu Bin, Ten Views of Lingbi Rock (1610)

Beijing Poly Auction, October 18, 2020


Wu Bin, Handscroll of Ten Views of Lingbi Rock, 1610. Courtesy of Poly Auction.

This rare Ming Dynasty handscroll broke the world record price for ancient Chinese calligraphy and painting after a fierce, nearly hour-long bidding war, which saw it become the most valuable work sold at auction in Asia in 2020, fetching a price between CN¥ 506 million and CN¥ 512.9 million ($75.4 million–$76.4 million). It had last been auctioned in 1989 by Sotheby’s New York to an American collector for $1.2 million, setting a record back then. The second-most expensive Chinese artwork after Qi Baishi’s CN¥ 931.5 million ($140.9 million) Twelve Landscape Screens (1925)—itself the second-most expensive work sold in 2017, behind Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500)—it also marks the third time that Chinese landscape painter Wu Bin’s work has achieved an auction record for Chinese classical painting.

Described as the most extraordinary painting of a stone ever created in China, Ten Views of Lingbi Rock is composed of 10 distinct views of a single Lingbi stone found in Anhui Province in eastern China. It was commissioned by collector Mi Wanzhong, who was obsessed with the stone’s jagged peaks and crevices, as these stones have long been admired in China for their beauty, peculiar mountain-like shapes, and musical sounds when struck. The very long scroll—reports of its full length vary wildly—features inscriptions by Mi Wanzhong describing each view, and well-known art connoisseurs added their own praises to the colophon. As the stone itself disappeared during the Manchus’ conquest of China in 1644, this painting is the only remaining record of it.

Explore more works by Wu Bin.

3. Roy Lichtenstein, Nude with Joyous Painting (1994)

Christie’s New York, July 10, 2020


Roy Lichtenstein, Nude with Joyous Painting, 1994. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.

The first auction of its kind relayed in sequence in real time from Hong Kong to Paris, London, and New York using streaming technology, the hybrid concept “One” sale saw strong global participation and revealed Christie’s ability to adapt to a rapidly changing reality. The top lot in the auction—this late-career masterpiece depicting a beautiful blonde alone in her bedroom, naked except for a blue headband and red lipstick—is painted in Roy Lichtenstein’s signature Ben-Day dot style echoing the accumulation of tiny colored dots used for printing comic books in the mid–20th century.

Ana Maria Celis, Christie’s co-head of post-war and contemporary art evening sales, described it as “the most important example of Lichtenstein’s last great series of nudes to have ever appeared at auction.” This set of 20 paintings—which turned out to be the Pop artist’s last body of work—saw him revisit the comic-book heroines that had first helped him gain popularity in the early 1960s, who now show no trace of needing the handsome leading men who had previously accompanied them. The series references examples of female nudes by Titian, Matisse, and Picasso in a desire to deal with art history head-on, reinterpreted through Lichtenstein’s trademark aesthetic.

Explore more works by Roy Lichtenstein.

4. David Hockney, Nichols Canyon (1980)

Phillips New York, December 7, 2020


David Hockney, Nichols Canyon, 1980. Courtesy of Phillips.

Driving and roads have played a major role in David Hockney’s images throughout his career. Named after the long winding street in the Hollywood Hills that he often took into Los Angeles, and painted just after he moved to the area, the iconic Nichols Canyon is also a portrayal of his short commute to work, as his studio was situated below on Santa Monica Boulevard. There are Matisse-like reds, greens, yellows, and blues, and depictions of the area’s lush vegetation. Hockney is fascinated by the experience of traveling through a landscape. He suggested that the viewer’s eye moves “around the painting at about the same speed as a car drives along the road.” Shunning straight lines, he fell in love with the curving thoroughfares of the Hollywood Hills he drove along, which started to enter his works—the wiggly line drawn freely down the middle of the canvas marked the start of this painting.

Boasting rare provenance for such a high-caliber piece, Nichols Canyon—along with another of Hockney’s paintings from 1980, The Conversation—was acquired by André Emmerich, one of New York’s most influential art dealers, in exchange for a late Picasso with which Hockney was enamored. An American collector then bought the work from Emmerich in 1982, and it had not changed hands since. At this Phillips evening sale—which achieved the highest total for a New York auction in the company’s history and marked a nearly 25% increase over last fall’s sale of 20th-century and contemporary art—Nichols Canyon made its auction debut and set a record for a landscape by the artist, atypically rivaling the prices fetched by his iconic portraits.

Explore more works by David Hockney.

5. Ren Renfa, Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback (late 13th/early 14th century)

Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 8, 2020


Ren Renfa, Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback, n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Measuring nearly seven feet long, the most valuable Chinese ink painting ever sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong depicts five drunken princes—one of whom later became a Tang Dynasty emperor, Li Longji—on a jubilant horse ride accompanied by four attendants. Executed by Ren Renfa, a celebrated painter of horses and a high-ranking Yuan Dynasty official whose output is mainly held in museums or private collections, this widely reproduced scroll is one of the rare surviving works by the artist to come to market.

Boasting impressive provenance, it was kept in the imperial collection of the Qing Dynasty, and following its fall, the painting was transported out of the Forbidden City in 1922 by Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, and was eventually acquired by Walter Hochstadter, a well-known dealer of Chinese art. Offered in the “Fine Classical Chinese Paintings” auction, the painting elicited over 100 bids during a 75-minute battle before it was purchased by the Long Museum in Shanghai, which houses one of the best ancient Chinese art collections in the world.

Explore more works by Ren Renfa.

6. Cy Twombly, Untitled [Bolsena] (1969)

Christie’s New York, October 6, 2020


Cy Twombly, Untitled [Bolsena], 1969. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.

One of the “Bolsena” series of 14 works mixing painting, drawing, and writing in a contemplation of time and space, the top lot of Christie’s October 6th sale pays homage to the first lunar landing accomplished by the Apollo 11 space mission. One of the millions of viewers watching mankind’s first steps on the moon spellbound, Cy Twombly made the series in the summer of 1969 at the remote 16th-century Palazzo del Drago on Lake Bolsena in the Tuscan hills, having become further entranced by Italy’s art history since moving there. An unusual example of the blue-chip master referencing contemporary events, the monumental canvas showcases a pale backdrop filled with an explosion of forms, lines, measurements, vectors, and textures, with a diagonal sweep referring to the upward thrust of the rocket, giving the feeling of floating in space.

Formerly part of the Saatchi Collection, it sold for a price just over its low estimate of $35 million, but well short of Twombly’s all-time auction record of $70.5 million, set by Untitled (New York City) (1968) at Sotheby’s in 2015.

Explore more works by Cy Twombly.

7. Sanyu, Quatre Nus (1950s)

Sotheby’s Hong Kong, July 8, 2020


Sanyu, Quatre nus, 1950s. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Sanyu took the top lot in Sotheby’s evening sale of modern art in Hong Kong following a four-way, 10-minute bidding battle for the largest work from a set of three paintings of similar composition, surpassing the previous record of $25.2 million, set by Nu (1965) in October 2019. The four nude women reclining against a green background in this work represent a post–World War II stylistic shift for the artist, as peacetime pushed him to refresh his approach to a dominant theme from his early career. While his initial female nudes had featured a single figure, his subsequent compositions depicted groups of women and marked an evolution in composition, style, and use of perspective. Sanyu’s portrayals of a group of female nudes rarely appear on the market—he only made six such works—and this exceptional, large-format piece from his later years emerged as interest in the artist reached an all-time high.

Explore more works by Sanyu.

8. Mark Rothko, Untitled (1967)

Christie’s New York, October 6, 2020


Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1967. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.

Breaking with tradition, Christie’s introduced a new global auction calendar in October instead of its usual marquee November sales in New York. Achieving the second-highest price for an artwork that night, behind the aforementioned Twombly, Untitled is among Mark Rothko’s most dramatic late-career paintings. With warm, vibrant hues surrounding a dark void, it mirrors the artist’s own inner demons, from the life-affirming color fields of magenta and red to the black abyss of despair. The edges of these color blocks increase in power by bleeding into the neighboring areas, and this is where the essence of his paintings can truly be felt. A demonstration of his complex process, in which he applied layer upon layer of colored washes using varied brushwork to create a presence and provoke an emotional response, this masterpiece is one of only four finished after his meditative canvases for the Rothko Chapel and prior to “Black on Gray,” the final series of his life.

Explore more works by Mark Rothko.

9. Barnett Newman, Onement V (1952)

Christie’s New York, July 10, 2020


Barnett Newman, Onement V, 1952. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.

The second-highest result at Christie’s “One” sale was a tie, but the first lot to sell for $30.9 million was one of Barnett Newman’s six “Onement” paintings. Considered to be the artist’s breakthrough series, they are the first works in which he incorporated his signature “zip,” a vertical stripe in a contrasting shade running down the center of the canvas, cutting through the monochromatic pool of pure pigment and giving the impression of color reverberating back and forth. “I realized that I had been emptying space instead of filling it, and that now my line made the whole area come to life,” Newman said of the series. Part of a generation of painters that included Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and operating independent of the burden of European aesthetics, Newman firmly believed that American artists could make a fresh start, and paint as if painting had never existed before. It was about proposing an entirely new direction in art, shifting from its obsession with beauty to the search for truth.

Explore more works by Barnett Newman.

10. Brice Marden, Complements (2004–07)

Christie’s New York, July 10, 2020


Brice Marden, Complements, 2004–07. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.

When others were proclaiming the death of painting and freeing themselves of the frame, one New Yorker who came to prominence in the early 1960s said: “The rectangle is a great human invention.” Selling for the same price as Barnett Newman’s Onement V in the same sale, Brice Marden’s diptych, with its orange and dark-blue rectangles intersected by multiple snaking coils, established a new world record for the artist at auction. An extraordinary illustration of his late, vibrant style, its flat planes of color are broken up by lines that twist and turn, and which have been extensively reworked with a palette knife to scrape down the myriad layers until their traces can barely be seen. Marden noted: “When I have put all I can into it and it really breathes, I stop. There are times when a work has pulled ahead of me and goes on to become something new to me, something that I have never seen before; that is finishing in an exhilarating way.”

Explore more works by Brice Marden.

Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle