Being able to find things that evoke deep emotions and carry a sense of fulfillment is really what makes life worth living. This is what makes the art scene so vibrant and compelling for those who have the means to collect such captivating work. Just as countless studies show the impact of arts engagement on life satisfaction, so continues the growth of such pursuits like art collection.
This is the mantra that has made a company like Sotheby’s thrive since its founding in the 1700s. Though trends may come and go, and tastes shift over the years, there is still a timelessness to the craft of selling art to those who seek it out. The psychology of spending money remains ever the same – people buy items to bring joy into their lives, to quell negative feelings, and to feel that rush of instant gratification after a purchase. This tendency has only grown more as social media becomes an influential norm.
With all of these factors tied together, it’s interesting to see what the most expensive artworks sold at Sotheby’s locations have been. After all, at this level of elite virtuosity and history, the Le Pho self-portrait auctioning for over a million is only the beginning.
Untitled by Jean-Michael Basquiat – $110.5 million
Basquiat is one of the most iconic artists to come out of the New York art scene in the ‘80s. His remarkable style is so inimitable that even his untitled works speak volumes with no name. Created in 1982, this particular untitled work is usually referred to as the Basquiat skull painting because of its depiction of a skull in acrylics, oil sticks, and spray paint.
This would eventually be sold at Sotheby’s for $110.5 million Yusaku Maezawa in 2017. After its purchase, it would make appearances at the Brooklyn Museum, the Brant Foundation, and the Seattle Art Museum on loan.
Dame mit Facher by Gustav Klimt – $108.4 million
Sold only recently in 2023, Dame Mit Facher (or Lady with a Fan) is a true masterpiece that perfectly encapsulates Klimt’s style. The initial figure that it sold for is more in the ballpark of $94 million, but a buyer’s premium naturally adds to the final tally. The bidding only lasted for ten minutes before Patti Wong snapped up the acclaimed work for a private Hong Kong buyer.
This painting has gained some notoriety because it was the last painting left on Klimt’s easel when he died in 1918. It has since moved on to other luxurious resting places, with its demure subject eternally surrounded by flowers and winged wonders.
White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) by Andy Warhol – $85.4 million
If there is any work that proves the fascination of humanity with disaster, it’s White Disaster. The old saying of being unable to look away from a car crash is embodied by its creator in his true Warhol fashion. The work only appeared at a Sotheby’s exhibition after a decade and a half kept away from public consumption.
With that, its imagery is far less commodified and plastered everywhere like Warhol’s other works. Even with its luxurious price point, it is only the fourth most expensive painting by the artist. Despite being decidedly more gritty than his famous Campbell’s Soup Cans, it still retains his signature style and penchant for pop art reflections of society’s seedier underbelly.
L’empire des Lumieres by Rene Magritte – $79.8 million
Is it really any wonder that L’empire des Lumieres would be another record-breaking piece? L’empire des Lumieres is enthralling to behold, with its surreal and almost liminal depiction of a lone street lamp in front of some houses wrapped by trees. The peaceful blue sky is a stark contrast to the gloomy and almost foreboding nature of the lower half of the painting.
Its 2022 Sotheby’s sale would mark it as the most expensive artwork by Magritte. The long bidding for the painting would eventually be ended by a phone buyer, marking quite a spectacular end to the auction.
Composition No. II by Piet Mondrian – $51 million
Piet Mondrian is another artist whose work is sought after by the cream of the crop. His works are symbols of status themselves, a testament to one’s appreciation and ability to have a piece of one of the most influential artists of his time. Most known for his impact on the De Stijl art movement, it makes sense that the most expensive Mondrian auctioned by Sotheby’s would be in this classic styling.
It is one of only three pieces by the artist with the iconic large red square dominating the upper half of the artwork. Still bright and geometric almost a hundred years since its creation, Composition No. II is definitely a masterpiece only a few have had the pleasure of calling theirs.
Maternite II by Paul Gauguin – $39.2 million
The stylings of French impressionist Paul Gauguin are often coveted for his lush use of color palettes and lively characterization of scenes in daily life. The Tahitian Maternite II is one such painting, gracefully showing the labor of motherhood and femininity in Punaauia. The personal painting actually features the artist’s Polynesian son and mistress, adding storied life into every stroke.
Its final price was already impressive at the time of its Sotheby’s sale in 2004, but it would eventually be sold for almost triple the price at $105.7 million during Paul Allen’s 2022 art auction.
Diego y Yo by Frida Kahlo – $34.9 million
There are many great artists who work with different mediums, but few have reached the heights of Frida Kahlo. Also known as ‘Diego and I’, this portrait shows Kahlo and her second husband, Diego Rivera. To have any original by the master of self-portraits herself is already a feat in itself for art enthusiasts, so to have a rare painting with muralist Rivera on it as well is even more of a triumph.
To make things even more interesting, the painting is also considered Kahlo’s last bust work before her passing. Its 2021 auction sale would mark the most expensive Latin American artwork in the world.