2023 Auction Wrapped | The top 10 most expensive paintings sold at auction this year, led by a US$139m Picasso

In 2022, the auction industry bounced back from a pandemic lull to a thriving year full of new records, most notably the legendary sale of Paul Allen's collection.

Following an exceptional year, 2023 saw the cooling of a lava-hot art market, where market correction seemed to have landed, partly due to the more challenging macro-environment. 

As we count down to 2024, let's take a look back at some of the year's stellar auction moments. 

In 2023, the total value of the ten most expensive paintings sold at auction was US$675.4 million, down US$44.5 million from last year. Christie's and Sotheby's maintained their dominance, with the former selling six pieces on the list, and the latter four. 

Eight of the top ten pieces were sold in New York, cementing the East Coast city's leading position in the industry. Austrian master Gustav Klimt took two spots, with the second-most expensive painting sold this year, Lady with a Fan, going to a Hong Kong collector. 

10th | Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) | Les Flamants, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist) 
Created in 1910
113.8 x 162 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 11 May 2023
Sold: US$43,535,000

French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau is best known for his naïve or primitive style. Entirely self-taught, he spent most of his life as a customs officer and did not go through academic training in any art institutions. His works, however, stood as a standard-bearer for generations of young artists and intellectuals, from Pablo Picasso to Robert Delaunay, André Breton to Max Ernst. 

Rousseau was believed to have created fewer than 240 oil paintings in his lifetime. With many of his works going to the collection of public institutions, he has been a rare presence at auction, and privately owned works with a provenance that goes back to the artist are even rarer.

On 11 May, Christie's New York presented his 1910 canvas Les Flamants – painted in the year when he passed away. In the end, the lot sold for US$43.5 million with fees, greatly smashing his previous record, and becoming this year's tenth most expensive painting sold at auction. 

This work was most likely purchased directly from the artist by Wilhelm Uhde, an early champion of Rousseau's art. After that, it went to the hands of Paul and Lotte von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin-based art collectors who through the 1920s amassed an extraordinary group of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works which included a Van Gogh Sunflowers.

In 1949, the painting was purchased by Charles S. and Joan Whitney Payson in New York. A member of the renowned Whitney family, Joan led an eccentric life: along with her philanthropic endeavours, she was passionate about horse racing, and was also the majority owner and president of the New York Mets.

9th |  Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) | Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II), Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 1910
96 x 105.5 cm
Auction House: Sotheby's London
Auction Date: 1 March 2023
Sold: £37,196,800 (US$44,874,220)

Executed in 1910, Murnau with Church II represents a key transformative period in Kandinsky's career, when he was exploring the limits of representation and searching for a new visual language that would communicate what he felt were essential truths about human experience – theories of which he articulated in his seminal text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1911.

Soon after it was painted, the work was acquired by Johanna Margarete Stern and Siegbert Samuel Stern, co-founders of a prosperous textile business in Berlin. Together the couple were at the center of the glittering cultural scene of 1920s Berlin, and were influential in the Jewish community, having provided assistance for a charitable organization that supported impoverished Eastern-European Jews. 

Two years after Siegbert died of natural causes in 1935, Johanna Margarete had to flee Germany as anti-Jewish measures continued to escalate. Though arriving in the Netherlands, the persecution towards her did not end. To survive, she had no choice but to sell her art collection, which consisted of well over 100 paintings and ended up being dispersed across the globe. 

Over the years, the descendants of the Sterns have been on the trail of the lost art collection. In 2013, this Kandinsky painting was found on the walls of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, where it had been hanging since 1951. After a years-long legal dispute, the work was finally restituted to the Sterns family in 2022, who then decided to offer it at Sotheby's – fetching £37.2 million (US$44.9 million), it became the most expensive by Kandinsky to ever sell at auction. 

7th | Mark Rothko (1903-1970) | Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), Oil on canvas
Created in 1955
207 x 152.5 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York 
Auction Date: 9 November 2023
Sold: US$46,410,000

Coinciding with the major Mark Rothko retrospective at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, Christie's presented an early abstract work from the artist, Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955), in New York during the autumn sales week, which eventually sold for US$46.4 million. 

A leader of postwar modern art, Rothko was born in Latvia in 1903 and immigrated to the US with his family in 1913. His early paintings were figurative, depicting intimate scenes and urban landscapes that show the loneliness of persons in drab urban environments. 

In the 1950s, he had arrived at his mature style of Abstract Expressionism, creating the celebrated "Colour Field paintings", the instantly recognizable works that would define his practice until his suicidal death in 1970. 

Having long been a disciple of the emotional power manifested by many of the European Old Masters, with these colour field paintings Rothko ultimately wanted the viewers of his works to undergo an almost religious experience when stood before them (Rothko himself specified that 18 inches was the optimum distance from which to fully appreciate his work).

7th | Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) | Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 1965
181.3 x 211.1 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 9 November 2023
Sold: US$46,410,000

Joining the above Rothko in the seventh place, Richard Diebenkorn's Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad (1965) was offered at the same sale and set an auction record for the 20th-century California artist. 

In 1964, Diebenkorn was invited by the State Department to visit the Soviet Union as part of the US-USSR cultural exchange program. The United States Information Agency deemed Diebenkorn an apt painter to engage with the local ‘socialist realist’ artists because at the time he was one of the few prominent American artists who was not working in abstraction, which Soviet authorities opposed.

During the trip, he visited many artist studios and cultural institutions, including the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, where he was deeply inspired by Henri Matisse. Before that, he had only seen black-and-white reproductions of the artist's world-famous works. 

Painted just months after he visited the Soviet Union, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad saw him pay homage to Matisse, with bold fields of colour flattening the composition to a great extent. The highly decorative floral curlicues that populate the upper left quadrant, in particular, is a direct reference to Red Room (Harmony in Red) (1908), one of the most famous of Matisse’s paintings, and a canvas that Diebenkorn saw firsthand during his visit to Leningrad. 

6th | Francis Bacon (1909-1992) | Figure in Movement, Oil and dye transfer lettering on canvas
Created in 1976
198.9 x 147.3 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 9 November 2023
Sold: US$52,160,000

Another piece that sold at Christie's evening sale in New York in November, Francis Bacon's Figure in Movement (1976) was this year's sixth most expensive painting, realizing US$52.1 million. 

Executed in 1976, the work takes its place within the canon of masterworks that followed the tragic death of his beloved George Dyer in 1971 – a turning point in Bacon's career, one that would change the direction of his art for the rest of his life. 

In less than thirty-six hours before the opening of Bacon's career-defining retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, Dyer, who had been his lover and muse for nearly a decade, decided to take his own life, ending their passionate yet tempestuous relationship. 

Trapped in the abyss of guilt and grief, Bacon created a series of his posthumous paintings known as the Black Triptychs, which replayed in harrowing detail the tragic events of his lover's last, lonely hours. Composed with grief as its central theme, the present work extends Bacon's figural language on the subject, depicting two figures wrestling on a nearly fired-colour platform, bounded by the edges of a geometric cube. 

5th | Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) | Insel im Attersee (Island in the Attersee), Oil on canvas
Created circa 1901-02
100.5 x 100.5 cm
Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Auction Date: 16 May 2023
Sold: US$53,188,500

Coming in fifth place is Gustav Klimt's US$53.1-million Island in the Attersee, which depicts the mesmerizing blue waters of the Atter Lake in Austria, where he would spend summers between 1900 and 1917. 

The beauty of the lake and his connection with nature initiated a series of paintings that in many ways mark the evolution of his mature artistic style. More than the portraits – which were often constrained by the requirements of commission – or his allegorical works with their heavy symbolism, and increasing controversy in public reception, it is in the landscapes that Klimt found the freedom to focus on the act of painting itself.

In this work, traditional perspective and subject are abandoned to a flood of colour and form that borders on the abstract. Klimt creates a composition that immerses the viewer in contemplation of nature and art: the horizon sits high, almost at the top of the picture plane so that the upper half of the island is cut off, and the viewer is placed in close proximity to the water.

Fresh to market, the present work once belonged to Otto Kallir, an art historian and gallerist best known for introducing Austrian artists to the United States – where he fled to in escaping the Nazi grip. 

4th | Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile), Acrylic and oilstick on canvas mounted on wood supports in three parts
Created in 1983
172.7 x 358 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 15 May 2023
Sold: US$67,110,000

A key figure in the blue-chip art market as well as a symbol of luxury, Jean-Michel Basquiat never lacked a market following both throughout his short yet explosive career and after his death at age 27. 

Basquiat's auction record now stands at an astonishing US$110 million, achieved by his azure-and-black skull painting Untitled in May 2017 – which also made him the most expensive American artist ever sold at auction then.

Back in 1983, as the young artist rose to fame and success, he set out to create three large-scale canvases to address issues of representation within the white-dominated art world.

One of them, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) – also known as History of the Black People – had been in the collection of legendary Italian fashion designer Valentino Garavani since 2005, and was brought back to the market as the star highlight of Christie's New York spring sales.

Demonstrating that the hot market for the artist has yet to cool down, the three-metre triptych, which traverses through Black history in its three panels, changed hands for US$67 million – the fourth-highest price paid for a work by Basquiat and a painting this year. 

3rd | Claude Monet (1840-1926) | Le bassin aux nymphéas, Oil on canvas
Painted circa 1917-1919
100.1 x 200.6 cm
Auction House: Christie's New York
Auction Date: 9 November 2023
Sold: US$74,010,000

The peak of a lifetime’s study of nature, Claude Monet’s Nymphéas (Water Lillies) series are among the most important works of not only the artist’s late oeuvre, but of the Impressionist era. 

In November, one version of it, which has stayed hidden from the public eye for more than a century, resurfaced at Christie's New York and eventually fetched US$74 million, making it the third most expensive painting sold in 2023. 

Painted circa 1917 to 1919, Le bassin aux nymphéas dates from the latter period of Monet’s life. After his death in 1926, the piece was inherited by his second son and only direct heir Michel Monet. Having changed hands several times, it went to the present owner's family in 1972, who kept the work private ever since. 

During the last 30 years of his life, Monet immersed himself in the horticultural oasis in his carefully curated Giverny Garden to depict the water landscapes. These works replaced the varied contemporary subjects he had painted in his early artistic career with two celebrated subjects: Japanese bridge and water lilies.

In more than 250 canvases, the Impressionist master captured the changing images of the water lilies and their reflections on the pond at all hours of morning, day, and evening. While the early paintings in the series encompassed a larger scenery of the garden, he gradually moved his focus closer to the water's surface, experimenting with the transitory effects of sunlight on it, with each canvas showing subtle differences under different weather. 

2nd | Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) | Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan), Oil on canvas (Auction record for a work of art in Europe)
Created in 1917-18
100.2 x 100.2 cm
Auction House: Sotheby's London
Auction Date: 27 June 2023
Sold: £85,305,800 (US$108.4 million)

1918 was the year Spanish flu swept across the globe, claiming more lives than all those lost in World War I. It was also the year Vienna's Golden Age drew to a close with the unexpected loss of its most gilded talent, Gustav Klimt. 

Left in his studio were two unfinished paintings still standing on easels: The Bride, clearly a work in progress, and Lady with a Fan, with only a few finishing touches away from completion. While the former has been the star of the Upper Belvedere in Vienna for decades, the latter arrived at Sotheby's London in June this year.

Following intense competition from Asian collectors, the work went to Patti Wong – co-founder of art advisory firm Patti Wong & Associates, and former International Chairman of Sotheby's – who was bidding in the saleroom on behalf of a Hong Kong collector.

It was speculated that the buyer was Rosaline Wong – the founder of Hong Kong gallery HomeArt – who owned at least two Klimt works, including the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) that Oprah Winfrey sold privately in 2015 for US$150 million.

With a final price with fees of £85.3 million – equivalent to US$108 million based on the current exchange rate – Lady with a Fan has become the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction in Europe. As to whether or not the work has claimed the auction record for Klimt, it would depend on which currency is used as the benchmark:

  • Birch Forest (1903) | Sold: US$104,585,000 (around £92 million), Christie's New York, 10 November 2022
  • Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) (1917-18) | Sold: £85,305,800 (around US$108 million), Sotheby's London, 27 June 2023

In US dollars, Lady with a Fan is a record high for any Klimt's work ever sold at auction; in pound sterling, the record is held by Birch Forest, which hailed from the esteemed collection of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. 

1st | Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) | Pablo Picasso | Femme à la montre, Oil on canvas
Created on 17 August 1932
130 x 97 cm
Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Auction Date: 8 November 2023
Sold: US$139,363,500

The most expensive painting of 2023 went to Pablo Picasso's Femme à la montre (1932), which achieved US$139.3 million at Sotheby's New York in November, also becoming the second-most valuable work by the artist sold at auction. 

The vibrant canvas featuring his golden muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, was offered at the highly anticipated evening sale dedicated to Emily Fisher Landau's collection, who is considered one of the greatest American art patrons and collectors of recent times. The 31-lot auction eventually garnered US$406.4 million, becoming the most valuable sale devoted to a female collector in auction history. 

Executed in August – just after Picasso’s blockbuster retrospective at the Galeries Georges Petit in the spring of 1932 – Femme à la montre is remarkable not only for its brilliant blue background and an unparalleled degree of finish, but also for the notable inclusion of a wristwatch. 

The motif of a watch only appears in three portraits of Picasso's entire oeuvre. The earliest is found in a portrait of his first wife Olga from 1917, a year before their wedding. More than a decade later the motif resurfaces in Femme à la montre, the timepiece resting upon the wrist of a new woman who’s borrowed the accessory as well as Picasso’s affections. The third was painted in 1936, the year when he officially divorced Olga and fell out of love with Walter. 

Treasured in the artist’s personal collection for decades, Femme à la montre was hand-selected by Ernst Beyeler from Picasso’s studio in 1966. Just two years later, the painting was acquired by Emily Fisher Landau, in whose esteemed collection it has remained for the last fifty-five years.