Roundup of 2020 Auctions: World's Highest Hammers That Reaped US$48.7m

To say that we’ve had the most tumultuous year is an understatement. With marquee sales of auction houses got pushed back and completely flipped upside down, all houses found themselves competing not only against one another, but in terms of how quickly they adapted to the shift. 

The unprecedented year plunged the total of the top 10 most expensive lots from last year’s US$65.9m to US$48.7m. This year’s list is no longer composed of only Western modern and contemporary artworks, but also two classic Chinese paintings and calligraphy, and - a dinosaur fossil.

Hybrid auction has become the industry's new normal 


“Bricks-and-clicks,” or hybrid sales have become the new normal amid the uncertainties led by different social movements as well as the coronavirus pandemic. While it’s undeniable that live auctions were a little lackluster - under the influence of travel restrictions and social distancing measures, live streaming fueled a number of the major sales this year, provided the silver lining needed. 

This year's top 10 list is no longer dominated by Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but also sees the addition of works that Phillips and Poly’s Beijing rolled out.


1. Francis Bacon (1909-1992) | Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981


Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 218.5 x 167.5 cm

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York

Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Sale date: June 29, 2020

Estimate: in excess of US$60,000,000

Price realized: US$84,550,000


Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus was crowned as the top lot of the year. It fetched a staggering US$84.5m, at Sotheby’s New York. 

Created in 1981, the masterpiece was inspired by the last remaining complete trilogy of Greek tragedies “Oresteia” by Aeschylus. It is one of the 28 large-scale triptychs painted by the British artist, and was guaranteed by the auction house. 

The livestreamed auction saw bids from New York, Hong Kong, and London. It marked Sotheby’s first attempt on the hybrid auction that encompasses multiple artwork categories, amid the pandemic. After quite an intense bidding war, it was a phone bidder in New York, who took home the work.


Queen Elizabeth II (left) paid a visit to Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus in the company of Hans Rasmus Astrup, previous owner of the present work 

Closer looks at Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus

2. Wu Bin (1573-1618) | Ten Views of a Lingbi Rock, 1610


Dimensions: 26 x 112.5 cm; 47.5 x 143 cm; 55.5 x 1,150 cm; 55.5 x 1,132 cm

Auction house: Beijing Poly

Sale: Beijing Poly Auction 15th Anniversary Auction 

Sale date: October 18, 2020

Estimate: upon request (Opening bid: RMB 100,000,000)

Price realized: RMB 512,900,000 (US$78,448,000)


The handscroll received an hour-long bidding war that took place in Beijing. After 66 bids in total, the hammer went down and brought in RMB 512m (US$78.4m) after premium, marking it the second most expensive Chinese artwork auctioned.

When the handscroll was seen in a New York sale back in 1989, it achieved US$1.2m, smashing the record for any ancient Chinese paintings, the amount was unheard of, in the 1980s.

Wu Bin was a Chinese painter who served at the Palace Painting Academy during the Ming Dynasty. His Ten Views of Lingbi Rock comprises 10 separate views of a single rock from the famous Chinese site of Lingbi, Anhui Province. It was said that Wu spent a whole month studying the intricate shape of the lingbi rock, before he successfully transposed it in ten different views on the handscroll. Each view is accompanied by the calligraphy and description of Mi Wanzhong, a renowned painter and calligrapher.


Ten Views of Lingbi Rock (partial)

3. Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) | Nude with Joyous Painting, 1994


Oil and magna on canvas

Dimensions: 177.8 x 134.6 cm

Auction house: Christie’s New York

Sale: ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century

Sale date: July 10, 2020

Estimate: US$29,000,000 - 35,000,000

Price realized: US$46,246,500

Hammered down at Christie’s inaugural global live auction that took place in consecutive sessions across four cities of Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York, Lichtenstein’s Nude with Joyous Painting was the second runner-up of the year. The work was acquired by a phone bidder from Hong Kong, represented by Francis Belin, President of Christie's Asia Pacific.

Painted in the artist’s iconic “Ben-Day dot” style, the work combines the themes of female nude and Pop Art and is the tour-de-force of the last series of great nudes began by the artist in 1993. It also marks the American pop artist’s return to the comic-book heroines that propelled him to fame in the early 1960s.

The Nude by the American pop artist was kept in an American private collection. The consignor was said to be the former CEO of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Lorenzo Fertitta.


More than 80,000 people worldwide tuned in to watch the relay sale, with 60,000 of those joined through social media in Asia

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)

4. David Hockney (B.1937) | Nichols Canyon, 1980


Acrylic on canvas

Dimensions: 213.4 x 152.4 cm

Auction house: Phillips New York

Sale: 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Sale date: December 7, 2020

Estimate: upon request

Price realized: US$41,067,500


Nichols Canyon pays homage to Hockney’s own neighborhood in California. Canyon relocated to the area in 1964, when later he moved into a place at the top of Hollywood Hills. The Fauvist composition vividly depicts the Los Angeles residence “wiggly” roads - as the painter put it, when he would make multiple trips a day, going back and forth between his place at the top of Hollywood Hills, and the workshop down the road.

Hockney is considered one of the most influential contributors to the Pop Art movement. He was also once crowned as the world’s most expensive living artist, when his Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) was sold in 2018 for US$90.3m.


Auctioneer Henry Highley brought the hammer down at US$35.5m


After starting the auction at US$24m, the work that carried a third-party guarantee attracted much enthusiasm and was finally hammered down at US$35.5m. It was sold to the client of Cheyenne Westphal, Global Chairwoman of Phillips. That has also become a record-high for the artist’s landscapes. 

The record also contributed to the auction house’s major milestone this year, as Phillips achieved the highest ever total for a 20th Century & Contemporary sale series. 


Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold at Christie’s New York, 2018, for US$90.3m

Ren Renfa (1255-1328), Five Inebriated Princes Riding Home (partial)


5. Ren Renfa (1254-1327) | Five Inebriated Princes Riding Home 


Ink and color on paper, handscroll

Dimensions: 35.2 x 210.7 cm

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Sale: Fine Classical Chinese Paintings

Sale date: October 8, 2020

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 120,000,000

Price realized: HK$306,551,000 (US$39,544,000)


A remarkable work by Yuan dynasty Chinese painter Ren Renfa, the handscroll depicts five drunken princes of the Tang dynasty taking a joyous horse ride accompanied by four attendants. Dynamic in composition, it vividly portrays the strong sibling bond between the princes.

The painting was originally sold at Beijing Poly’s auction in 2016, to a Chinese property and hotel group Suning Universal. The RMB 303m deal, however, was called off as the consignor was unable to resolve the issues related to exporting/ importing and taxes.

The painting resurfaced in the auction market after four years at Sotheby’s Hong Kong and induced an hour-long bidding battle with over 160 bids. It was finally sold for HK$306.5m (US$39.5m) after premium, to Chinese billionaire and mega-collector Liu Yiqian, founder of Long Museum. Coincidentally, Liu was the underbidder of the handscroll at Poly’s four years ago. The Shanghai-based collector was also the one who acquired Amedeo Modigliani's Nu couché five years ago, with US$170m.


A closer look at Five Inebriated Princes Riding Home, believed to be Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (685-762), according to Sotheby’s

New owner of the handscroll, Liu Yiqian (right), Long Museum's founder, and his wife

6. Cy Twombly (1928-2011) | Untitled (Bolsena), 1969


Oil-based house paint, wax crayon, graphite and felt-tip pen on canvas 

Dimensions: 199.4 x 240 cm

Auction house: Christie’s New York

Sale: 20th Century Evening Sale

Sale date: October 6, 2020

Estimate: US$35,000,000 - 50,000,000

Price realized: US$38,685,000


Completed in 1969, Untitled (Bolsena) is a rare piece from Cy Twombly’s landmark series of "Bolsena" paintings. "Bolsena" came from the artist’s workshop at the time when the series was curated, in Lake Bolsena of central Italy. 

It was inspired by the launch of the Apollo Moon Landing Mission. The expressive lines against the white background evoke an impression of a rocket launch into the infinity of space, while the cryptic and diagrammatic forms conjure a world of calculation and communication. 

Prior to him being an artist, Twombly had spent some time as a cryptologist in the U.S. military, where he spent nights drawing in the dark.

The painting was in the collection of a contemporary art gallery, Saatchi Gallery in London. It also appeared in a number of prominent exhibitions including those in Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art in the 1980s, London’s Tate Modern museum during 2008 to 2009.


Cy Twombly’s workshop located in Lake Bolsena, Italy

7. Sanyu (1895-1966) | Quatre nus, circa 1950


Oil on masonite

Dimensions: 100 x 122 cm

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Sale: Modern Art Evening Sale

Sale date: July 8, 2020

Estimate: upon request

Price realized: HK$258,341,000 (US$33,325,000)


The Asian modern art world, predominantly led by the craze of Zao Wou-Ki, seemed to experience quite a drastic change this year. It seemingly was replaced by another Asian master Sanyu, also hailed as “Chinese Matisse.”

Quatre nus features four nude women in repose. According to “SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings” there are only six paintings that feature nudes in groups of three or more, across his entire oeuvre, all of which were created in the 1950s.

The painting depicts four female nude figures lounging on a green pasture, presumably sunbathing. Sanyu successfully transformed the mundanity of the human body into natural landscapes by infusing the spirit of Asian landscape painting into the Western nude genre.

The opening bid was HK$160m and the palpable bidding immediately began. The stunning work was acquired by a phone bidder represented by Nathan Drahi, Commercial Officer of Sotheby’s, also the son of the auction house's owner Patrick Drahi. It set the record as the artist’s second most expensive painting auctioned. The work pulled in HK$258.3m, an impressive 15 times more than the price realized by the same artwork in 2005, for HK$16.3m.


Winning the bid was Nathan Drahi, Commercial Officer of Sotheby’s, also the son of the auction house’s owner Patrick Drahi 

8. Tyrannosaurus Rex (STAN), Dinosaur bone fossil


Dimensions: 1,128 x 396 x 183 cm

Auction house: Christie’s New York

Sale: 20th Century Evening Sale

Sale date: October 6, 2020

Estimate: US$6,000,000 - 8,000,0000

Price realized: US$31,847,500


The present Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil, STAN was discovered by paleontologist Stan Sacrison in 1987. Measured at 1,128 x 396 x 183cm, the 67-million-year-old T.rex fossil is the most complete one to date. As James Hyslop, head of Christie’s Science & Natural History mentioned, “STAN lived in the late Cretaceous period - the prehistoric age that ended mysteriously and abruptly some 65 million years ago with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.”


The edges of STAN’s teeth are jagged, enough to directly crush and cut the meat and bones of the prey


In comparison to monster-like depictions, the bone structure of STAN indicates strong animalistic physique, implying great independence amongst competitors. Additionally, its sharp teeth allowed the dinosaur to completely tear the prey apart. Its deep hollow nasal and eye area also suggests a great sense of smell, and a set of large eyes, which was essential to STAN’s survival.

With a pre-sale low estimate of US$6m, without reserve, STAN attracted fervent bids from New York and London. It was eventually sold to a bidder of James Hyslop, Head of Christie’s Science & Natural History, for US$31.8m after premium.



Prior to STAN’s appearance in the sale, STAN resided in the family-run Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, until it was brought to the middle of a business-ownership dispute between brothers Peter and Neal Larson. The brothers ended up with a court order to part ways, in which they had to sell STAN.

The incident stirred up discussions among scientists, where some feared that the fossil might be lost to research now that it is in the hands of a private collector. 

9. Mark Rothko (1903-1970) | Untitled, 1967


Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 172.7 x 153 cm

Auction house: Christie’s New York

Sale: 20th Century Evening Sale

Sale date: October 6, 2020

Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 50,000,000

Price realized: US$31,275,000


Untitled is one of the only four vibrant canvas Mark Rothko completed after finishing his suite of dark meditative paintings for Rothko Chapel in Texas. The connection between Rothko Chapel and Untitled is intertwined. As an unsettling space, the black paintings surrounding the interior of the Chapel creates an ambiance of meditation and self-discovery.

In 1998, Untitled was auctioned at Christie’s, at US$12m including premium. In a span of 22 years, the price of the painting was elevated 26 times.


The artist's pieces on the walls of Rothko Chapel

10 - Tied. Brice Marden (B.1938) | Complements, diptych, 2004-1007


Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 182.9 x 243.8 cm (overall); 182.9 x 121.9 cm (each)

Auction house: Christie’s New York

Sale: ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century

Sale date: July 10, 2020

Estimate: US$28,000,000 - 35,000,000

Price realized: US$30,920,000


Appeared in the same sale of Christie’s ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century, as our second runner-up previously mentioned, Brice Marden's Complements and Barnett Newman’s Onement V are a tie here.

The diptyque Complements embraces Marden’s technique of revealing the painting process by incorporating splashes from his palette knife in thin horizontal bands at the base of his canvases. The artist got his inspiration from his trip to Paris in the 1960s, when he saw local workmen stuccoing war-damaged buildings and was captivated by the drips accumulating on the pavement. 

The artwork brought Marden’s personal record to a new high of US$30.9m, a significant jump from the record created for Number Two, which achieved US$10.9m in an autumn sale at Sotheby’s.

10 - Tied. Barnett Newman (1905-1970) | Onement V, 1952


Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 152.4 x 96.5 cm

Auction house: Christie's New York

Sale: ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century

Sale date: July 10, 2020

Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 40,000,000

Price realized: US$30,920,000


Tied with Marden’s Complements above, Onement V by American artist Barnett Newman came with a higher pre-sale estimate. Though with the same achieved price of US$30.9m, both works were hammered down shy of their low estimates.

For the past three decades, there have been only 11 works by Newman seen in auctions, highlighting the rarity of works by the influential icon of Abstractions Expressionism.

Completed in 1952, Onement V, is one of the six works from the “Onement” series. The series also are some of the first works in which Newman adopts his trademark of “zip,” a vertical line running through the center of the canvas, injecting the artworks with much energy.

Onement V is one of only two works from the series in private hands. The other four are held in museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which houses Onement I and Onement III.