The reshuffled top 10 most expensive artworks sold at auction after Paul Allen sale

Despite a weakening global economy in the past two years, the art market proved to be strong and startlingly resilient, with big purchases grabbing headlines season after season.

This past spring, Andy Warhol's Shot Sage Blue Marilyn shocked the art world as it sold for US$195 million, standing as the second most expensive painting in auction history. 

Just at Wednesday's Paul Allen sale, two masterpieces, Georges Seurat's Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) and Paul Cézanne's La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, has rose well above the US$100 million mark and became the sixth and ninth most valuable paintings respectively. 

On the occasion, The Value has gone through a latest list of the ten top-selling artworks at auctions. Collectively, they delivered a whacking total of US$1.84 billion.

From left to right: the first to fifth most expensive paintings ever sold at auction

From left to right: the sixth to tenth most expensive paintings ever sold at auction

Before we go into the list, here are some key figures:

  • Christie's dominates the list with 7 sold in its saleroom; Sotheby's secures 2 spots, while mainland China powerhouse Poly takes up 1
  • 9 of them were sold in New York, cementing the east coast city's leading position in the art market
  • 19th-century Italian master Amedeo Modigliani is the only artist to earn 2 places
  • 8 out of 9 artists on the list are modern or contemporary; Leonardo da Vinci is the only Old Master, and Qi Baishi is the only Eastern painter
  • The Scream, in 10th place, sold for US$119. million, meaning the threshold has been raised to US$120 million

1st | Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) | Salvator Mundi, Oil on panel
65.7 x 45.7 cm
Christie's New York | 15 November 2017
Buyer: Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism
Sold: US$450,312,500

The painting depicts Christ as Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World), facing frontally and dressed in flowing robes of lapis lazuli. He holds a crystal orb in his left hand as he raises his right hand in benediction, symbolizing protection and good fortune. It is one of fewer than 20 surviving paintings by Leonardo, and the only one in private hands. 

Ever since the masterpiece sold for a record-smashing US$450 million, rumours surrounding its whereabouts has been all over the place. The buyer was first identified as the Saudi Arabian Prince, Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, then the country's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Later, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism declared that Prince Bader was acting on behalf of the government to acquire the work, likely as a gift from Saudi Arabia to the UAE as a sign of the strong friendship between the two countries.

In 2018, the Louvre Abu Dhabi announced the exhibition of Salvator Mundi, which turned out to be a no-show in the end. As its location became unknown once more, the story goes that it was kept on the Saudi Prince’s superyacht, though it was unconfirmed.

2nd | Andy Warhol | Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, Acrylic and silkscreen on linen
101.6 x 101.6 cm
Christie's New York | 9 May 2022
Buyer (alleged to be): Larry Gagosian, American art dealer and founder of Gagosian Gallery
Sold: US$195,040,000

Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is one of the most iconic paintings of the 20th century.

In August 1962, Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe died. That year, Andy Warhol created a series of works based on Monroe’s promotional poster for the 1953 movie, Niagara. Two years later, in 1964, he depicted the protagonist’s face with bright colours, and used a more delicate silkscreen printing technique to create a number of works starring Monroe.

When Dorothy Podber, American performance artist, visited Warhol’s New York studio in 1964, she saw the works and asked if she could shoot them. Believing she meant taking pictures, he agreed. Unexpectedly, the woman took out a revolver and shot through the forehead of Monroe's likenesses with a single shot.

This series of five works – including red, orange, sage blue, light blue and turquoise versions – became known as the Shot Marilyns. Amongst the five paintings, four were hit by the bullet – the turquoise version was left undamaged in another location. 

Going under the hammer at Christie's New York this May, this sage blue version of Shot Marilyn is sold to mega dealer Larry Gagoisan but he has not revealed on whose behalf he bought the work. 

3rd | Pablo Picasso | Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O), Oil on canvas
114 x 146.4 cm
Christie's New York | 11 May 2015
Buyer (alleged to be): Hamad bin Jassim, former Prime Minister of Qatar
Sold: US$179,365,000

Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger series is a tribute to the two masters who he greatly respected: the first is 19th-century French master Eugène Delacroix, who painted two famous artworks of the same title; the second is his friend and artistic rival, Henri Matisse, who was also an admirer of Delacroix. 

The series consists of 15 paintings created during 1954 to 1955 all of which share different sizes but similar compositions. In 1956, renowned American business owner Victor Ganz bought the entire series, and ten were later sold to Saidenberg Gallery, with him keeping versions "C", "H", "K", "M" and "O".

After he passed away, these five works were released on the open market and this version "O" sold for US$179 million in 2017 to become the most expensive artwork sold at auction then

Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei founded the Long Museum in Shanghai

4th | Amedeo Modigliani | Nu couché, Oil on canvas
59.9 x 92 cm
Christie's New York | 9 November 2015
Buyer: Liu Yiqian, Chinese billionaire and founder of the Long Museum in Shanghai
Sold: US$170,405,000

Modigliani was an Italian-Jewish artist but he worked mostly in France. In 1906, he moved to Paris and met avant-garde artists like Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi, who became influences to Modigliani’s paintings and sculptures. Unfortunately, the artist suffered from severe illness for most of his life and died tragically young at the age of 35. Only after that did he gain posthumous fame. 

His now-celebrated nude series was gleaned from Italian Renaissance's idealized female figures, the linear simplicity of African scupltures and the earth-toned palatte and geometric modeling of Cubism. 

In 2015, this rare canvas was sold by art historian Laura Mattioli at Sotheby's New York to Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian, the founder of Long Museum in Shanghai, who is dubbed as “the eccentric Liu”. Fetching US$170.4 million, it was the second-most expensive artwork ever sold at auction at the time. 

5th | Amedeo Modigliani | Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), Oil on canvas
89.5 x 146.7 cm
Sotheby's New York | 14 May 2018
Sold: US$157,159,000

The majority of the 22 reclining nudes from Modigliani’s nude series are found in museums, with particular depth in the United States: the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York each hold three examples.

This Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), measuring nearly 147 centimeters across, is the largest painting of Modigliani’s entire oeuvre. It is also the only one of his horizontal nudes to contain the entire figure within the canvas.

When it was offered at Sotheby's New York in 2018, this reclining nude was billed as the artwork with the highest estimate ever offered at auction, expected to be sold for US$150 million. Yet, it fell short of expectation as the hammer was knocked down at US$139 million and became then the fourth most expensive painting sold at auction.

Before the record-setting sale in 2018, the painting had gone under hammer at Christie’s New York in 2003, sold by Steve Wynn, the casino mogul who founded Wynn Resorts, for US$26.9 million to John Magnier. 

6th | Georges Seurat | Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version), Oil on canvas
39.5 x 50 cm
Christie's New York | 9 November 2022
Sold: US$149,240,000

Sold from the Paul Allen collection at Christie's New York,  Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) went for US$149.2 million to a bidder represented by the house's Deputy Chairman Xin Li-Cohen, suggesting its buyer is likely to be an Asian, or more specifically an ethnic Chinese. 

There are two versions of Les Poseuses: a smaller canvas, the present work; and a larger one, which remained in the collection of the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Throughout the 20th century, this small canvas served as the primary means for scholars and the public to study Seurat’s intricate play of color and light, as well as the complex compositional arrangement of Les Poseuses.

In the work, Seurat connected Les Poseuses and the celebrated La Grande Jattet by including several accessories and garments worn by the characters on the latter canvas within the studio scene. The orange parasol and straw hat, for instance, appear to directly echo the objects placed on the grass alongside the girl seated in the middle of the park scene. 

7th | Francis Bacon | Three Studies of Lucian Freud, Oil on canvas
198 x 147.5 cm x 3
Christie's New York | 12 November 2013
Buyer (alleged to be): Elaine Wynn, ex-wife of Steve Wynn
Sold: US$142,405,000

While Francis Bacon is best known for his Papal potrait series, Three Studies of Lucian Freud stands as a witness to the friendship and rivalry between the two titans of post-war British figurative art.

Their bromance started in London in 1944. On their first encounter, the two sparked an instant friendship and has since enjoyed a famously intense relationship that lasted over 40 years.

The pair was said to be ‘inseparable’ when they were the closest during the 1950s and 1960s, dining and drinking together almost every night in Soho’s restaurants, bars and clubs. Freud’s ex-wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, recalled having to sit with Bacon for dinner nearly every day throughout their short six-year marriage between 1953 and 1959.  

Apart from the beer and skittles, they pair spent time in each other’s west London studios and subject their works to intense scrutiny, sometimes giving harsh criticism to their closest friend. 

The artwork was offered for sale at Christie's New York in 2013, and the buyer is reported to be Elaine Wynn, ex-wife of Steve Wynn.

8th | Qi Baishi | Twelve Landscape Screens, Ink on paper
180 x 47cm x 12
Poly Auction Beijing | 17 December 2017  
Sold: RMB 931,500,000 (around US$140.8 million)

Qi Baishi is a household name among Chinese, renowned for painting shrimps in an impressionistic style that breathed new life into classical Chinese ink art. His motif, however, are not only limited to shrimps in fact, he earned a reputation for his diverse range of subjects.

There are only two extant Twelve Screens of Landscapes created by Qi Baishi. The present one was created in 1925, when Qi was at age 62, as a birthday gift to a renowned doctor Chen Zilin in Beijing.

This set of Twelve Screens of Landscapes was first on display in April 1954 at his solo exhibition held by China Artists Association. It was later shown in a memorial exhibition featuring his works in 1958, a year after the artist passed away.

Each screen measures 180 x 47 cm, depicting the beauty of twelve spectacular landscapes. Scholars believe this set of paintings was created by Qi after he had travelled around China and hence the series fully exemplifies the artist’s mastery of landscape paintings.

9th | Paul Cézanne | La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, Oil on canvas
65.1 x 81 cm
Christie's New York | 9 November 2022
Sold: US$137,790,000

A symbol of the south of France, Mont Sainte-Victoire was a never-ending inspiration for Paul Cezanne, who produced dozens of canvases portraying the landscape. Most of his artworks from the series have resided in museum collections, leaving only two in private hands, including the present work.

Throughout the series, one can witness the artistic development of the post-Impressionist master: the more he painted, the more abstracted the landscape would become. While his earlier works employed a more classically constructed composition, his later work was a precursor to Cubism, where he broke the visible field into fragments and flattened the image into abstraction by removing recognizable details.

Cezanne's previous auction record was set by Curtain, Jug and Fruit, which sold for US$60.5 million at Sotheby's New York back in 1999. His personal record, however, was reportedly set at US$250 million, when The Card Players was sold to Qatar by George Embiricos, a Greek shipping magnate, through a private sale in 2011. It was also the most expensive piece of art ever sold then.

10th | Edvard Munch | The Scream, Pastel on board
79 x 59 cm
Sotheby's New York | 2 May 2012
Buyer (alleged to be): Leon Black
Sold: US$119,922,500

One of the most recognizable painting around the globe, Edvard Munch's The Scream needs no introduction. This pastel on borad is one of four renditions of The Scream, and the other three versions are housed in Norwegian museums, leaving this only one in private hands.

In May 2012, this version of The Sream went for US$119.9 million at Sotheby's New York, becoming the most expensive artwork sold at auction at the time. The buyer was later reported to be New York billionaire Leon Black, the co-founder of private equity firm Apollo Global Management, who once served as the chairman of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He refused to confirm or deny the report, though.