2019 Review: Ten Most Expensive Artworks Sold at Auction

2019 is coming to an end. It’s the perfect time to look back at some notable events happened in the auction world this year. Of the ten most expensive artworks, six were sold at Christie’s while four at Sotheby’s. Topping the list is Monet’s haystack painting, followed by artworks by Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso etc. The total value of all ten works is up to nearly US$660m. Let's take a look at artworks that snatched up the top ten spots at auctions in 2019.

1. Claude Monet (1840-19260). Meules|First impressionist work of art to cross to the US$100m mark at auction
Created in: 1890
Size: 72.7 x 92.6cm

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Estimate: in excess of US$55,000,000
Price realised: US$110,747,000

While Claude Monet is best known for his water lilies series, his Haystacks series is no less precious than his water lilies, or even rarer. In merely 18 months between 1890 and 1891, Monet created 25 paintings for the Haystacks series. Amongst the 25 Haystack paintings Monet created, 17 are located in museums, which makes only 8 in private hands.

Although the series is named Haystacks, Monet employed grainstacks as the subject. Through the history of civilisation, the harvest of grain determines whether humans can survive, especially during the hard months of winter.

The bidding of Monet’s Meules evolved into a fierce bidding war that lasted more than 8 minutes and elicited over 33 bids. With various telephone bidders showing interest, the price rose to US$75m shortly after the bidding was opened, exceeding its estimate of US$55m. As the bidding battle got more intense, only two contestants remained at the battlefield. One of them was Brooke Lampley, Vice Chairman, Fine Arts Division, while another was a woman in the saleroom.

The painting was hammered down at US$97m, a victorious bid by the woman in the room with the paddle no. 989. It was sold for US$110.7m after premium, becoming the first work of impressionist art to sell for more than US$100m at auction. Meules was last sold at an auction in New York in 1986 for US$2.5m only. The value of the painting has increased 43 times in 33 years.

The painting was reported to be acquired by German businessman and collector Hasso Plattner, co-founder of SAP SE software company. According to Forbes, Plattner has a net worth of US$15.8 billion.

2. Jeff Koons. Rabbit|Auction record for the world’s most expensive work of art by a living artist
Created in: 1986
Size: 104.1 x 48.3 x 30.5cm
This work is number two from an edition of three plus one artist's proof and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Estimate: US$50,000,000 - 70,000,000
Price realised: US$91,075,000

This May, Jeff Koons’ stainless steel sculpture Rabbit (1986) was hammered down at US$80m and sold for US$91.07m after premium at Christie’s New York, smashing the auction world for a work by a living artist.

In November 2013, Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) was sold at Christie’s New York for US$58.4m, breaking the auction record for the world's most expensive work by a living artist until the record was later replaced by David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) that sold for US$90.3m in November last year. After merely 6 months, Jeff Koons regained the title of the world’s most expensive living artist with his US$91.07m Rabbit, which was inspired by inflatable toys.

Jeff Koons

David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) was also hammered down at US$80m last year. As Christie’s increased its buyer’s premium early this year, even with the same hammer price, Koons’ Rabbit took over the title of the expensive work by a living artist after selling for US$91.07m, which is US$762,500 higher than the Hockney’s record.

The buyer was revealed to be Robert Mnuchin, who said he made the bid on behalf of his client. Robert Mnuchin, the father of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, is an American art dealer and former banker. He had worked for Goldman Sachs for 33 years and retired in 1990. Upon retiring from the financial sector, he opened his gallery–Mnuchin Gallery, in a historic five-story townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side.

Steve Cohen

So who is the secret client that Mnuchin was buying the painting on behalf of? Some sources said it was hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen, who has a net worth of US$13.6 billion.

3. Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). Buffalo II|Auction record for the artist
Created in: 1964
Size: 243.8 x 183.8cm

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Estimate: US$50,000,000 - 70,000,000
Price realised: US$88,805,000

Robert Rauschenberg was an American painter and graphic artist whose early works anticipated the pop art movement. Rauschenberg was best known for his “combines” of the 1950s, which non-traditional materials and objects were employed in various combinations.

Buffalo II was offered at the same Christie’s New York sale where Koon’s Rabbit was sold. The was hammered for US$78m and sold for US$88m after an intense 20-minute bidding to the telephone bidder represented by Sara Friedlander, International Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art. It set a new auction record for the artist.

Buffalo II set the auction record for Robert Rauschenberg

The painting is one of the largest in Rauschenberg celebrated series of silkscreen paintings that captured the social, political and artistic zeitgeist of the decade. Buffalo II brings together disparate images and motifs that, for Rauschenberg, defined modern life in 1960s America. The canvas is dominated by a large image of the then Senator John F. Kennedy, and includes iconic consumer products and patriotic symbols of America — the Coca-Cola logo, an army helicopter, a Bald Eagle and an astronaut. It was exhibited at the XXXII Venice Biennale in the spring of 1964, where Rauschenberg was awarded the coveted International Grand Prize in Painting.

4. Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). Bouilloire et fruits
Created in: 1888-1890
Size: 48.6 x 60cm

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Estimate: US$40,000,000
Price realised: US$59,295,000

Paul Cézanne’s Bouilloire et fruits, 1888-1890, is a sensual profusion of still-life objects positioned on a table according to relationships Cézanne detected among their shapes, colours, and textures.

S.I. Newhouse (middle)

It came from the collection of the late American media mogul S.I. Newhouse who was known as one of the most important art collectors of the 20th century and well into the 21st. Newhouse owned Condé Nast, the publisher of magazines such as The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and many other leading publications.

Bouilloire et fruits carried a pre-sale estimate in the region of US$40m and was guaranteed to sell with a third-party guarantee. It was hammered down at US$52m and sold for US$59.3m to the telephone bidder of Rebecca Wei, President, Christie’s Asia.

5. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Femme au chien
Created in: 23 November – 14 December 1962
Size: 162 x 130cm

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000
Price realised: US$54,936,000

Femme au chien depicts Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s beloved second wife who remained with him until his death in 1973, enthroned in an armchair. Picasso also put his Afghan hound Kaboul in the painting. Kaboul, named after the Afghan capital, was loved by the couple. It accompanied Picasso up to the end of his life and appeared in several portraits of Jacqueline Roque.

The painting belonged to a Japanese private collection and was kept for about 29 years. It was sold for US$54.9m after premium, far exceeding its presale estimate of US$25m-35m.

Picasso and Kaboul

Picasso and Jacqueline Roque

6. Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Double Elvis [Ferus Type]
Created in: 1963
Size: 208 x 134cm

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Estimate: US$50,000,000 - 70,000,000
Price realised: US$53,000,000

Double Elvis [Ferus Type] is Andy Warhol’s painting that pays tribute to superstar Elvis Presley. The Double Elvis series is one of the most prominent works by the artist. All of the paintings are similar, apart from the depth of colours and distances between the two Elvis in the paintings.

In May 2018, Steve Wynn, the founder of the Wynn Resorts, sold his Double Elvis at Christie’s New York for US$37m. Compared to the present one, one of Wynn’s Elvis was much lighter in colour but the distances between the figures are similar. Another Double Elvis is currently in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA).

Estimated at US$50m-70m, this Double Elvis had third party guarantees, which means that it would definitely sell. The seller was reported to be David Martinez, dubbed “the most influential Mexican on Wall Street”.

Three Double Elvis artworks: MoMa collection (left), Wynn collection (middle) and Martinez collection (right)

Martinez is a Mexican businessman who graduated from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, a top university in Mexico. Then he went to Rome to attend the Pontifical Gregorian University but he found this path unsuitable for him, thus transferring to Harvard Business school to pursue a Master in Business Administration and build strong connections with people from the business world there.

Upon his graduation, Martinez worked at Citi Group. In 1987, at the age of 30, Martinez established a hedge fund company named Fintech Advisory. The company mainly deals with issues like sovereign debt restructuring. Martinez is very active in finance yet very discreet with his actions. His investments remain “unknown” and there is no accurate estimate of his wealth.

It is known that he is active in the art industry but as to what he has purchased, nobody can be certain. Rumours say that he is fond of contemporary art and admires artists like Picasso, abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock and British artist Damien Hirst.

7. Ed Ruscha. Hurting the Word Radio #2|Auction record for the artist
Created in: 1964
Size: 150 x 140.3cm

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 40,000,000
Price realised: US$52,485,000

Created by Ed Ruscha in 1964, Hurting the Word Radio #2 measures 150 x 140.3cm. Across a vast expanse of vibrant sky blue, the word “RADIO” is laid out in a beguiling juxtaposition of static and surreal sunshine yellow painted letters, whereas trompe l’oeil c-clamps squeeze the “R” and tug on the “O. It is an iconic example of Ed Ruscha’s c-clamp paintings.

Ed Ruscha
Hurting the Word Radio #2 was first exhibited at Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery in 1964, a venue that had swiftly established itself as a hotbed of Pop art. It was then acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, Joan and Jack Quinn, in the early 1970s. The painting has been kept in the same collection since then.

The painting was sold to the telephone client of Marc Porter (first on the left), Chairman, America

The auctioneer started the bidding at US$22m and knocked down at US$46m, selling the work for US$52.48m after premium to the telephone client of Marc Porter, Chairman, Americas. It broke the last record set by the artist’s Smash which was sold for US$30.4m at Christie’s New York in 2014. The record was held for five years until it was broken by Hurting the Word Radio #2.

8. Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Study For A Head
Created in: 1952
Size: 66 x 56cm

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Estimate: US$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Price realised: US$50,380,000

Study for a Head (1952) broadcasts Francis Bacon’s most celebrated and recognizable iconography, which today remains one of the most pertinent, universal. It presents the iconic and tortured scream of Bacon’s best-known Popes.

The painting features a subject about the human-animal as unadorned, despairing and alone. The archetype Bacon appropriated as a starting point for his Pope series was Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1650, a painting about which Bacon felt “Haunted and obsessed by the image…its perfection.”

Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X

The bidding opened at US$15m and the price soon rose to US$30m with strong interest from room bidders and telephone. As the price reached US$40m, remaining in the battlefield were a room bidder and the telephone bidder represented by David Schrader, Senior Vice President New York. The painting was hammered down at US$44m, a winning bid made by the room bidder. It was sold for US$50.38m after premium. The room bidder was revealed to be London-based art dealer Eykyn Maclean.

9. Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Untitled
Created in: 1960
Size: 175.3 x 127.3cm

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Estimate: US$35,000,000 - 50,000,000
Price realised: US$50,095,250

Mark Rothko’s Untitled from 1960 is one of just 19 paintings on canvas by Rothko from 1960 and nearly half of which reside in museum collections. The present one was a property from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and was estimated at US$35m-50m.

The bidding at US$30m and steadily went up to US$43m. By then, it became a contest between the telephone bidders represented by Patti Wong (Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia) and Amy Cappellazzo (Chairman of Fine Art division). The latter one won the bid by offering US$43.75m, at which the auctioneer put the hammer down. The painting was sold for US$50.09m after premium.

Mark Rothko

10. David Hockney. Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott
Created in: 1969
Size: 214 x 305cm

Auction house: Christie’s London
Estimate: £30,000,000
Price realised: £37,661,250

David Hockney’s Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, the last one on the top ten list, was sold at Christie’s London. It is a double portrait of Geldzahler, a curator at The Met, and his partner, painter Christopher Scott.

Hockney had met Geldzahler in New York at Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’ in 1963, the year after he graduated from the Royal College of Art. Geldzahler at the time was a young and successful curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a figure at the centre of New York’s contemporary art scene.

‘Henry and I got on along instantly,’ Hockney would later recall of the Pop Art evangelist. The pair also bonded over their shared birthday — 9 July — and a love of Cuban cigars. The two remained close throughout Geldzahler’s 18-year tenure at The Met and his stint as New York’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. Geldzahler died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 59.

The painting was bought from the show by Harry N. Abrams, a New York art-book publisher. It then remained with Abrams’ family until 1992, and was loaned for other shows. In 1997 Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott was acquired by Barney A. Ebsworth, the Seattle-based travel industry tycoon and collector.