Best of 2022 | The top 10 most expensive artworks that gathered US$1.12b

After more than two years of pandemic lull, the auction industry is bouncing back from the crisis to pre-pandemic levels – if not better. In fact, 2022 has been a stellar auction year where numerous records were set. As we ring in the new year, let's look back on the "best of 2022" in the auction world.

This year, the total of the 10 most expensive artworks sold at auction reached a whopping US$1.12 billion, owing much to the legendary Paul Allen Sale. Christie's sold the top seven pieces on the list, with six of them coming from the late tech tycoon's collection. Sotheby's took two of the remaining three lots, and Phillips one.

Nine lots on the list were sold in New York, and one in London, cementing the east coast city's leading position in the industry. Except for Andy Warhol's White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) and Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled, which came in eighth and ninth place, all lots have set auction records for the artists.

10th | Rene Magritte | L’Empire des lumieres, Oil on canvas
Created in 1961
114.5 x 146cm
Auction House: Sotheby's London
Auction Date: 2 March 2022
Sold: £59,422,000 (around US$78.4 million)

Almost trippling Rene Magritte's previous auction record, L’Empire des lumieres sold for £59.4 million (around US$78.4 million) at Sotheby's London in March this year. 

Magritte first started work on L’Empire des lumieres in 1948, where the first version of the painting was bought by Nelson Rockefeller. Throughout his career, Magritte painted a series of 17 oil paintings known as the L’Empire des lumieres series. Examples are held in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

Measuring 114.5 by 146 cm, the L’Empire des lumieres painting featured in this year's auction is the largest horizontal version amongst the 17 oil paintings. It was painted in 1961 for the Belgian Baroness, Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet. She is the daughter of Pierre Crowet, an early patron of Magritte.

After the painting was completed, it remained in the Crowet family’s collection. From 2009 to 2020, it was on loan to the Magritte Museum in Brussels.

9th | Jean-Michel Basquiat | Untitled, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas
Created in 1982
239.4 x 501 cm
Auction House: Phillips New York
Auction Date: 18 May 2022
Sold: US$85,000,000

Sold by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, Basquiat’s orange-red Untitled realised US$85 million at Phillips New York in May, ranking as the third most expensive work by the blue-chip artist on the global auction list.

Measuring 239.4 by 501 centimetres, Untitled is one of Basquiat's largest works. The provenance traces back to Annina Nosei, Basquiat's first manager, who then sold the painting to Akira Ikeda Gallery in Japan. It was later acquired by a prominent collector of Basquiat's works, Enrico Navarra, in New York.

After that, the painting was back to Asia, going to the collection of the Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong. Later kept in a private collection in New York, it was auctioned off at Sotheby's London in 2004, selling for £2.5 million (around US$4.5 million). The buyer was reportedly a distinguished New York art dealer, Adam Lindemann.

12 years later, the painting was back to the public eye at Christie's New York. Estimated between US$41 and 50 million dollars, it was acquired by Maezawa for US$57.2 million, a then auction record for the artist. 

8th | Andy Warhol | White Disaster [White Car Crash 19 Times], Silkscreen ink and graphite on primed canvas
Created in 1963
367.7 x 210.5 cm
Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Auction Date: 16 November 2022
Sold: US$85,350,500

After having remained in the same private collection for more than 25 years, White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) was offered at Sotheby's New York in November and fetched US$85.3 million to become this year's eighth-most expensive painting sold at auction.

It is now the fourth-most expensive work by Warhol to sell at auction and came in second place for the his renowned Death and Disasters series, with the crown taken by Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), which sold for a then-record price for the artist at US$105.4 million in 2013.

The Death and Disaster series, which consists of seventy-odd works of art that take as their subjects atomic bombs, car accidents, electric chairs, and other tragedies presented as highly quotidian in the media, was started by Warhol in 1962 after he saw a large plane crash image on the headline news.

Created in 1963, the present lot stands at three metre tall, being the largest single-panel Car Crash painting from the series. In the work, 19 imprints of a fatal collision reel appear in a cinematic sequence across the towering canvas, exuding an air of solemnity almost like an altarpiece.

7th | Lucian Freud | Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau), Oil on canvas
Created in 1981 - 1983
185.4 x 198.1 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 9 November 2022
Sold: US$86,265,000

As with the following five paintings on the list, Lucian Freud's Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau) was sold from the Paul Allen sale which took place at Christie's New York in November. Realizing US$86.3 million, it shattered the artist's previous auction record of US$56 million, set by Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) in 2015.

Initially more known as the grandson of neurologist Sigmund Freud, Lucian Freud earned a reputation for himself with his evocative portrait paintings. In order to capture the human body in all its frailty, Freud would paint exclusively from life, putting his subjects – only those who were within his inner circle – under intense direct observation.

In Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau), the artist chose to work with his extended family, who are, from left to right: Celia Paul, his then-lover; Bella, his own daughter; Kai, the son of his former partner, Suzy Boyt; and Suzy Boyt herself. Lying on the floor in front of them is Star, the little sister of the then-girlfriend of Ali Boyt, Suzy and Lucian’s son. 

Spanning almost two meters in both height and width, the work was Freud’s largest painting to date at the time, and his first canvas to feature more than two sitters. It was also his first of only a few pieces to artistically paraphrase a painting from art history: namely Jean Antoine Watteau’s Pierrot content.

Jean Antoine Watteau, Pierrot content

6th | Gustav Klimt | Birch Forest, Oil on canvas
Created in 1903
110.1 x 109.8 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 9 November 2022
Sold: US$104,585,000

Birch Forest was acquired directly from Klimt by the now legendary collectors, Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Their collection was seized by the Nazi authorities in the days following the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.

After it was restituted to the heirs of the Bloch-Bauers, it was sold to Paul Allen for US$40 million at Christie's New York in 2006, which set the then auction record for the artist, though the record had swiftly been cracked by Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, when it fetched US$87.9 million on the same day. 

Going under the auction block for the second time, Birch Forest had finally regained the throne this year as it sold for US$104.6 million. At private sales, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, the other Klimt painting commissioned by the subject's husband, was alledgedly sold for US$135 million to Ronald Lauder, son of cosmetics baron Estée Lauder. 

5th | Paul Gauguin | Maternité II, Oil on burlap
Created in Tahiti in 1899
94.7 x 61 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 9 November 2022
Sold: US$105,730,000

After Van Gogh and Gauguin quarreled in 1888, the latter went back in Paris only to find it a distressing place to realize his artistic desires. When he successfully gathered enough funds for his trip – thanks to a sale at Hôtel Drouot, he set sail to his exotic paradise Tahiti for the second time and never again return to Paris. As he immersed himself in local life, he was captivated by the appearance, daily rituals, gestures, language and lives of Mataiea’s inhabitants. 

Deeply inspired, Gauguin entered a period of heightened creativity, where he created a series of artworks depicting exotic idylls and beauties for which he is renowned for today. A verdant ode to fertility, the present Maternité II is one of two versions of this composition. The first, Maternité I, is now housed in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

In 2004, Maternité II set Gauguin's auction record at US$39.2 million. Two years later, the record was smashed by L'homme à la hache, when it sold for US$40.3 million. Now with Maternité II selling for US$105.7 million, his record has increased by nearly US$65 million.

4th | Vincent van Gogh | Verger avec cyprès, Oil on canvas
Created in Arles in 1888
65.2 x 80.2 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 9 November 2022
Sold: US$117,180,000

The most valuable painting by Vincent van Gogh to sell at auction, Verger avec cyprès sold for US$117.1 million to a client of Christie's Deputy Chairman Xin Li-Cohen, suggesting its buyer is likely to be an Asian, or more specifically an ethnic Chinese. 

Van Gogh's previous auction record was set in 1990, when Portrait of Dr Paul Gachet fetched US$83 million at Christie's, the highest auction price for a work by any artist at the time. The buyer was known to be Ryoei Saito, the Japanese paper tycoon.

Painted in April in 1888, this painting stands as a witness to Van Gogh’s beginning of his mature career. In February that year, the artist moved from Paris to Arles with a vision for a Promising Land, a utopia which he imagined would be like Japan, a country that fascinated him.

Captivated by the motif he had found in Arles, he set out to create “a Provence orchard of tremendous gaiety”, capturing a variety of views of the different trees in blossom. By the end of April, Van Gogh had completed 14 canvases of the landscape, of which only five remained in private hands, including the present lot.

3rd | Paul Cézanne | La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, Oil on canvas
Created during 1888 - 1890
65.1 x 81 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 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 Cézanne, 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 abstract 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.

In May 2001, Paul Allen acquired La Montagne Sainte-Victoire at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg for US$38.5 million. Two decades later, the work fetched US$137.8 million, more than a triple increase in the value. It also shattered the artist's previous auction record of US$60.5 million, set by Curtain, Jug and Fruit in 1999. 

Cézanne's 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.

2nd | Georges Seurat | Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version), Oil on canvas
Created in 1888
39.5 x 50 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 9 November 2022
Sold: US$149,240,000

Leading the Paul Allen Sale, Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) went for US$149.2 million, also to a bidder represented by Xin Li-Cohen, suggesting its buyer is likely to be an Asian, or 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. 

1st | Andy Warhol | Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, Acrylic and silkscreen on linen
Created in 1964
101.6 x 101.6 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 9 May 2022
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.