- The value of an artwork
- The most well-known auction houses
- The list of most expensive artworks by living artists
When I hear the word “auction” I always think about the movie The Best Offer (2013) and immediately my mind is filled with dozens of questions like:
What gives an artwork the status of “expensive”?
Who decides the price and the real value of art?
In today’s world which matters more: the aesthetics of the artwork itself (whether it is a painting, a sculpture, an installation, or another art form) or the cultural background of the artist?
Is it a subjective feeling and pleasurable to the eye, or is it the consciousness that a group of art critics decided that this certain type of art seems to be rare, unique and therefore it must be expensive? Is it even possible to judge the value of art and make comparisons? These are really difficult questions which, to be honest, I ask myself frequently.
When it comes to art auctions, there are two major seasons for collectors interested in purchasing artworks: May and November. Furthermore, there are two major players, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, with an occasional mention of Philips and Bonhams. All of these auction houses make the majority of their sales in New York City where one could also see Impressionist, Modern, Post-War, and contemporary artworks in exhibitions before they go under the hammer and disappear usually into private collections.
Here we present a progressive list of record auction prices for an artwork by a living artist from the least to the most expensive:
10. Jeff Koons, Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold), $23.6 million
Made of stainless steel and coated with layer upon layer of pink paint for an astonishing finish, Hanging Heart is 2,7 m tall and weighs more than one ton and yet somehow manages to appear weightless like a balloon. The playful and controversial American artist Jeff Koons made five of these works, each in a different color, and this one sold in 2007 at the November auction at Sotheby’s for $23.6 million.
9. Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (809-4), $34.2 million
From here we have a list of paintings by the Dresden-born artist Gerhard Richter, starting with Abstraktes Bild (809-4) in which we can admire the interesting technique used in the Abstrakte Bilder series. The abstract painting is the second canvas in Richter’s monumental four-part series of works, all created in 1994. Dating from the artist’s most celebrated period of abstraction, Abstraktes Bild (809-4) was acquired by the rock legend Eric Clapton at auction in 2001. 11 years later, it was sold for $34.2 million in Sotheby’s October auction and it is believed that this series marks a moment of great professional triumph for Richter.
8. Gerhard Richter, Domplatz, Mailand, $37.1 million
Another of Richter’s paintings called Domplatz, Mailand shows Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) in the Italian city of Milan. An enormous painting, 3 x 3 m, from 1968 it is considered to be an outstanding example of the artist’s 1960s photo-painting technique which he began to practice in the post-war years during his time at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. The painting was sold in May 2013 at the Sotheby’s spring auction for $37.1 million. If you are interested in seeing a great movie inspired by Richter’s life and artistic career check out the trailer:
7. Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (599), $44.5 million
For the second time on this list we can admire a masterpiece from the Abstrakte Bilder series, this one created in 1986. With its extraordinary chromatic power and glorious light effects, it was sold at the Sotheby’s auction in February 2015 for an unbelievable $44.5 million. It is a breathtaking oil on canvas with a catalog note saying that:
Richter’s painting explores the enigmatic juncture of sense and non-sense. His paintings encircle, enclose the real as that which is impossible to say: the unrepresentable.
“The Tragic Desire” in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, ed., October Files 8: Gerhard Richter, London 2009, p. 62.
5. Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2, $52.4 million
Hurting the Word Radio #2 was sold for $52.4 million in 2019 at Christie’s. It is one of the early works of Ed Ruscha’s “text” paintings that he started creating in the 1960s. Ruscha is based in Los Angeles, which can make us think that is where the inspiration for the electric blue of the canvas came from.
5. Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Orange), $58.4 million
Jeff Koons’ Orange Balloon Dog was one of the first of his Balloon Dog series to be fabricated and each of his dogs is made of mirror-polished stainless steel and finished with a translucent coating, in this case, orange. The image of the balloon dog is connected with joyful associations with childhood, birthday parties, festive events, and playful moments. On November 12th, 2013, Koons’ Dog was sold at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in NY for $58.4 million, which was above its estimate.
4. Sacha Jafri, The Journey of Humanity, $62 million
The Journey of Humanity is the largest canvas in the world, it measures over 5,000 square meters (the equivalent of four NBA basketball courts). It was created by Sacha Jafri, a British artist, in Atlantis The Palm hotel in Dubai, where he was spending his lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic. The proceeds from the sale were donated to charities, as the purpose of this art piece was to raise money for children, who were affected by the pandemic.
3. Beeple, EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, $69.3 million
On March 11, 2021 EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS was sold for $69.3 million, making it the most expensive digital work of art in the world and the most expensive bid in an online-only auction. The work was done by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann), it is a collage of 5000 images that he was creating every day and posting them online. The current owner has the right to display the artwork, therefore now you can see it in a virtual museum within the “metaverse“.
2. David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), $90.3 million
On November 15th, 2018, in nine minutes of bidding, the Pop art painting Portrait of an Artist by the British artist David Hockney was sold to an unknown buyer for $90.3 million in Christie’s auction house in New York City. When Hockney visited California for the first time in 1964, he painted the first of his pool paintings and the swimming pool became one of the recurring themes in his paintings.
This work, completed in 1972, brings together two of Hockney’s main themes from his paintings of the late 1960s and early 1970s: the swimming pool and the double portrait. For the double portrait we can see a man swimming underwater (the artist himself) and a man standing at the edge of the pool, watching the swimmer. The standing figure is Peter Schlesinger, Hockney’s former lover and muse. Even though the inspiration for the background came from California, the painting is set in southern France, near Saint-Tropez. If you want to learn more about David Hockney and his work click here.
1. Jeff Koons, Rabbit, $91.1 million
Yes, a shiny Rabbit sculpture made from stainless steel is the most expensive work sold by a living artist at an auction. This oversized rabbit holds in his hands a tiny, sharp carrot serving as a counterpoint to the rounded torso and face. It was made by the aforementioned Jeff Koons in 1986 and auctioned at Christie’s in May 2019 for an unbelievable $91.1 million, breaking the auction record. Even though many laypeople and art critics claim that Rabbit is nothing but kitsch or a marketing toy, this work is not only considered a holy grail of Koons works among certain collecting circles, but it became a cultural icon of the 21st century.
After Koons Rabbit, everybody is waiting for the next record-breaking masterpiece to be sold in upcoming auctions and the name of its lucky author. Will we see an abstract painting, a sculpture, an installation or… an NFT? In these chaotic times, is it even possible for new forms of art such as performance, body art, or even a materialization of an idea like Maurizio Cattelan’s Banana to at a certain point be auctioned? Who knows, but what we know for certain is that the auction houses and the art world will not stop surprising its worldwide audience. So let’s get surprised!