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Art Scene

The Most Expensive Art Ever Sold

Christie’s and Sotheby’s are peerless when it comes to record-setting and record-breaking sales. The two houses often hold public auctions selling art and other collectibles for millions and millions of dollars. But the year we’re leaving behind truly was a record-shattering year for art auctions. We look at the world’s most expensive paintings and artists sold at auction in 2022, as well as two of the most expensive private art collections in auction history.

most expensive paintings ever sold in auction

What Is the Most Valuable Painting in History?

Old masters and pre-20th century greats are often included in museum collections and few are held by private collectors, which is something that not even the most expensive modern art can top. 

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi holds the current record for the highest price paid for a painting, as it sold through New York’s Christie’s for approximately US$450.3 million (commission included) in 2017. Even a copy of this painting, created by an anonymous artist, sold for over a million euros at Christie’s Paris in November 2022. Da Vinci holds yet another record: his Mona Lisa has the highest-ever insurance value for a painting.

Warhol’s vibrant 1964 silk-screen “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” sold for $195 million at Christie’s auction in May 2022, breaking the record for a work by an American artist sold at auction. Honorable mentions include Warhol’s “White Disaster [White Car Crash 19 Times]” which sold for over $85 million at Sotheby’s in November 2022, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled (Devil)” (1982), which sold for $85 million at Phillips in May 2022.

The World’s Most Expensive Art Collections

The Macklowe Collection is one of the most expensive art collections ever sold. When it sold in November 2021 and May 2022, it was the talk of the town because of its record-shattering outcome. The collection included some of the most expensive contemporary art, with 65 masterpieces in total. 

Amongst the 65 notable and carefully selected artworks in the Macklowe Collection were two artworks that sold for over $70 million, four at $50 million, fourteen for $20 million, and 20 for $10 million.

On the 15th of November 2021, the highly anticipated, exclusive first white-glove auction sale of the ‘Macklowe Collection’ took place. The first Maclowe auction was an exciting event for bidders and art collectors alike. 

Exceptional works of contemporary art were just minutes away from being sold, and they exceeded all expectations as some of the most expensive art ever sold. It sold for a whopping $676.1 million USD. Six months later, on May 16, 2022, Sotheby’s held another white-glove sale, raking in a total of $246.1 million. 

But it is Paul Allen’s art collection of 150-plus works that ultimately broke that record as the largest single-owner sale in auction history. The Microsoft co-founder’s art collection surpassed $1.6 billion in a recent auction. The record-shattering two-night auction was held at Christie’s in New York in November 2022. Each work within the collection sold for over $100 million. The collection managed to surpass Christie’s initial estimate of a combined $1 billion.

The magnificent Macklowe Collection included various masterpieces from across the globe, accumulated over several decades. But Paul Allen’s diverse art collection, more than double in size and spanning 500 years of art history, ultimately managed to beat the record. Allen, too, had spent several decades assembling his collection and he often borrowed items from his collection to museums. Both collections featured some of the most expensive paintings for sale.

most expensive art ever sold

The staggering difference between the prices of the two auctions can be easily explained: Allen’s had over 150 works, while the Macklowe one had 65. On top of that, Allen’s collection included works by Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Gustav Klimt. Seurat alone fetched over $149.2 million and Cézanne sold for almost $137.8 million. Most of the biggest sellers date back to the 19th century, but Allen also owned works by contemporary masters, such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, and Lucian Freud. They, too, reached record prices.

Nevertheless, the Macklowe Collection is regarded as one of the most prestigious collections ever to grace the world of art collections and auction events. Sotheby’s record multi-million-dollar sale made headlines because it involved a most exquisite collection obtained through remarkable connoisseurship and includes rare and iconic masterworks from the 20th and 21st centuries. 

The fact that the entire collection only includes several dozen works of art is a testament to the quality of the collection. The works might never have become available for sale if it had not been for the owners’ bitter divorce battle.

Why Was the Macklowe Collection Sold?

Although Paul Allen, a man with an enduring legacy built through for-profit and philanthropic endeavors, takes the cake as this year’s art auction superstar, there is no doubt that the Macklowe Collection made its mark in art history. The results of the auction speak for themselves. Collectors were delighted by the quality and diversity of the works that took several decades, substantial funds, and relentless dedication to obtain. But the question on everyone’s mind was why was the Macklowe Collection being sold in the first place.

The story has an interesting background. The valuable collection was auctioned within one of Manhattan’s most high-profile divorce proceedings. This collection, known as the Macklowe Collection includes modern and contemporary works in possession of Harry Macklowe, a real estate tycoon, and his ex-wife Linda Macklowe, an honorary trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The divorce battle aside, the former spouses were in the possession of some of the most expensive art ever sold, as the collection raked in $922.2 million.

The first series of the sale was held in November 2021, raking in $676.1 million from 35 lots, including some of the most expensive modern art, such as known works of Mark Rothko ($82.5 million), and Alberto Giacometti ($78.4 million). The next white-glove sale, known as the second Macklowe Sale, took place on May 16, 2022, and consisted of 30 lots.

This monumental moment in the world of auctions and collections was the outcome of the New York court order in 2018. Because of the couple’s inability to settle on the division of their shared property, Justice Laura E. Drager of the State Supreme Court ultimately ordered the collection, valued at more than $700 million, to be sold in a public auction. 

While it was the love of collecting masterpieces that brought them together in the first place and filled their home with pieces of art, the art collection was Ms. Macklowe’s number one passion. She had hoped to keep the main pieces of the art but, given the former spouses’ failure to reach an amicable agreement on the division of assets, this proved impossible.