We present an equation: one contemporary artist, one masterpiece, one auction, and a million-dollar offer. Here are the ten most expensive artworks made by living artists sold at auctions for millions.
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. Damien Hirst – Lullaby Spring
In 2002, British contemporary artist Damien Hirst executed his work Lullaby Spring. It is one part of a series of four unique stainless steel pharmaceutical cabinets symbolically called Four Seasons. While each cabinet shares the same formal structure, each is differentiated by the assortment and color of the pills that are lined up along the narrow shelves with geometric precision. While in Lullaby Winter the pills are predominantly off-white in accordance with the austere winter months, in Lullaby Spring Hirst presents a polychrome of brightly colored tablets and capsules in an allegorical celebration of renewed life. In June 2007 Damien’s art was sold at the Sotheby’s auction house for $19.3 million. For more examples of Damien’s recent works click here.
9. Peter Doig – Swamped
Peter Doig’s enigmatic paintings are characterized by their captivating combination of figurative depiction and dreamlike quality. In May 2015 this Scottish-born painter succeeded in selling his masterpiece at Christie’s auction house for $20 million. Painted in 1990, Swamped, as the author called it, captures the mesmerizing atmosphere of a moonlit lagoon, with a mysterious white canoe situated at its heart.
8. Jeff Koons – Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold)
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.
7. Lucian Freud – Benefits Supervisor Sleeping
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping is a 1995 oil on canvas painting depicting an obese, naked woman lying on a couch, weighing about 127 kilograms. It is a real portrait of civil servant Sue Tilley, who the artist called “Big Sue”. Lucian Freud, aside from being a famous British painter and draughts-man, was also well-known for being the grandson of Sigmund Freud. Although his early career was more focused on portraits and influenced by German Expressionism and Surrealism, from the mid-1990s on Freud depicted a series of huge nude portraits into which this painting fits. In May 2008 the painting was sold for $33.6 million at Christie’s auction.
6. Gerhard Richter – Abstraktes Bild (809-4)
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. Eleven 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.
5. Gerhard Richter – Domplatz, Mailand
Another of Richter’s paintings called Domplatz, Mailand shows Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) in the Italian city of Milan. An enormous painting, 3m x 3m, 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 here.
4. Gerhard Richter – Abstraktes Bild (599)
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.”
3. Jeff Koons – Balloon Dog (Orange)
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.
2. David Hockney – Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)
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 1970: 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
Yes, a shiny Rabbit sculpture made from stainless steel is the most expensive work sold by a living artist at an auction. This over-sized 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 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, or an installation? In these chaotic times, is it even possible for new forms of art such as a 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.
Read more about the world of auctions and the most expensive artworks ever: