We all know that art can be valuable, particularly when it comes to old paintings and other works created by long-dead masters. But what many of us might not realize is just how valuable these works can be. The prices of artwork sold in private auctions are often kept secret, but we know enough to compile a list of the paintings that have fetched the highest prices over the years.
6. “Wasserschlangen II” by Gustav Klimt
Sale price: $183 million
Austrian painter Gustav Klimt was known for several significant works throughout his career, including “The Kiss,” “The Virgin,” and the “Portrait of Adele Bloc-Bauer I.” However, none reached the same level of financial success as “Wasserschlangen II,” or in English, “Water Serpents II.”
Depicting several striking images of women floating in a sea of gold, stars, and flowers, this painting is characteristic of the sensuous style that Klimt was known for, and it certainly performed well at auction: The painting was bought by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev in 2012 for $183 million.
5. “Number 17A” by Jackson Pollock
Sale price: $200 million
A well-known contemporary painter, Jackson Pollock is best known for his contributions to abstract expressionism and his bizarre, frenetic painting style. While his abstract style earned him plenty of detractors throughout his career, there’s no denying his influence on modern culture. One of his works, “Number 17A,” was reportedly purchased for $200 million by Chicago hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin in 2015. (Yes, the same one who purchased “Interchange.” His combined $500 million investment still reigns as one of the biggest art deals ever made.)
4. “Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)” by Paul Gauguin
Sale price: $210 million
French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin didn’t receive much attention until after his death, but his works certainly earned him an enduring place in history. His 1892 painting “Nafea Faa Ipoipo” (When Will You Marry?) was sold in 2014 to a Qatari buyer for an undisclosed amount. That is, until a lawsuit over commissions brought the art deal into the spotlight. Per findings from the High Court of London, Gauguin’s piece sold for a cool $210 million, earning it a spot in the top five most expensive works ever sold.
3. “The Card Players” by Paul Cézanne
Sale price: $250 million
Unlike the other works on this list, Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players” is actually a series of five paintings, each depicting a different set of gentlemen playing card games at a table. Given Cézanne’s legendary reputation, every piece of “The Card Players” series is highly sought after by international art galleries. The first four works currently reside in world-class museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, the Courtauld, and the Barnes Foundation.
Thus, when the fifth Cézanne went up for sale in 2011, it was snapped up by the Qatar royal family for $250 million—the highest bid ever made (at the time) for any artistic work.
2. “Interchange” by Willem de Kooning
Sale price: $300 million
The runner-up for highest-valued painting was crafted by Dutch American expressionist William de Kooning in 1955, dubbed “Interchange.” According to those familiar with expressionism, “Interchange” is an abstract landscape that is best known for signaling a significant turning point in de Kooning’s life. Indeed, “Interchange” would be the first of many abstract landscapes that de Kooning would paint over the next 11 years.
However, no other painting would come close to its price. In 2015, “Interchange” was purchased by hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin to the tune of $300 million, making it the most expensive piece of abstract art ever sold.
1. “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci
Sale price: $450 million
In first place, we have the newly-discovered “Salvator Mundi.” This masterwork was brought to us by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci and was purportedly completed sometime in the 1500s. The painting depicts a half-length portrait of Jesus Christ with one hand raised in blessing and another holding a crystal orb, thought to be a symbol of the heavens. (A fitting portrayal as “Salvator Mundi” means “savior of the world” in Latin.)
It’s easy to see why this piece is so valuable, given that it’s one of the few authentic da Vinci pieces that still exists today. The painting went up for auction in 2017 where it was purchased for over $450 million by one of the few people who could afford it: Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.
The most valuable paintings in the world
It’s hard to put a price on so-called "priceless" art. There are so many factors influencing a painting’s value that it’s amazing we can come to a consensus on pricing at all. Nevertheless, museums, art galleries, and private collectors with cash to spare are always on the lookout for masterpieces like these, regardless of how expensive they may be. And as long as collectors are willing to pay six figures for these works, you can bet that these prices will only increase over time.