BY KYLE R. BELL
Every single year, arts and culture generate more than $800 billion to the U.S. economy alone, which is 4% of the GDP. These figures come from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Remember, the United States only plays a small part in the grand scheme. The international art world is responsible for a ton of economic activity and wealth. And currently, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Andy Warhol, Rembrandt, Claude Monet, and many other well-known names govern auctions.
Although, this wasn’t always the case before the last couple of decades. How? Artists active between the 14th-18th century was what everyone was content talking about in the international art world. Yet, today, the popularity has decreased considerably, but artist’s paintings from this era still sell for exorbitant prices. These Old Masters know how to garner attention. Why? Public auctions and high-profile private museum acquisitions of numerous artworks by prominent artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Peter Paul Rubens, Michelangelo, and Raphael, among others, have dominated headlines, with artworks selling for upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Private deals of masterpieces have taken the art world by storm in recent years, putting the category of most expensive paintings in a new stratosphere. In 2021, the Old Masters category struck the art world yet again when a Sandro Botticelli portrait from the private collection of late real estate mogul Sheldon Solow sold at Sotheby’s in New York on January 28 for $92.2 million. In comparison to the others, this is a minuscule purchase. Below is a list of the top 5 most expensive paintings ever sold from Old Masters sales.
5. Pollock’s “Number 17A” — $200 Million
The prime example of a drip painting, Jackson Pollock painted this a year after he had given the world his world-renown drip technique. The sheer amount of paint creates a color vortex where both the top and bottom layers are impossible to distinguish. Drip paintings by Pollock were unpopular. Initially, the value of this painting was low in the art market. When Life Magazine featured this piece in 1949, it made Pollock a household name. David Geffen sold hedge fund investor Kenneth C. Griffin, CEO and Founder of Citadel in Chicago “Number 17A”, a 1948 painting by Pollock for $200 million. At the time, it set the world record for the most expensive painting ever sold. Water Serpents II held the record before “Number 17A” sold. In 2013, Water Serpents II sold for $183.8 million.
4. Paul Gauguin’s “Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)” — $210 million
Gauguin’s mission in Tahiti sent him to search for societies that cherished and preserved the original form of spirituality. He believed the modern style of life spoiled the roots of spirituality because of European colonization, namely the French. The contrast of these two women in this painting symbolizes the younger woman is ready to marry because of the white flower in her hair. The Staechelin Family Trust, a Swiss Family Foundation confirmed the sale of this masterpiece, but not the buyer.
3. Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players” — $250 million
The Card Players is a culmination of 5 paintings inspired by the painting: Dogs Playing Poker. Art historians debate how Paul Cézanne created this painting. Did he use smaller pieces and work his way up to bigger ones? Maybe it was the other way around? One thing we do know is Cézanne did extensive planning before painting. He created a dozen or so sketches and several painted portraits before creating this masterpiece. The speculation is he may have started painting this on location as the models posed for the portrait. Qatar bought this painting in 2012 as a statement to become an international intellectual hub. At the time, it was the most expensive purchase ever made for a single piece of artwork.
2. Willem de Kooning’s “Interchange” — $300 million
Willem de Kooning was known for occasionally using figurative language in his work. Although there are no distinguishing visuals in Interchange, it is a valuable abstract painting. This specific piece of artwork is considered preeminent work explaining the pinnacle of Abstract Expressionism. Kenneth C. Griffin, CEO, and Founder of Citadel in Chicago, bought ‘Interchange’, a 1955 painting by de Kooning from David Gefen.
1. Leonardo da Vinci “Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500)” — $450.3 million
Louis XII of France in 1506 commissioned this painting. Leonardo finished Salvator Mundi by 1513. Christ giving his blessing to the world was a popular subject in French and Flemish art. When this painting sold, it was one of the most widely publicized art sales in history at auction. Christie’s New York sold this painting in 2016 during a postwar and contemporary art event. A private European collection sold this exquisite artwork to Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
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