The Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold


This is a record that is continuously broken as each auction season rolls around, but this week, at the Christie’s Contemporary art night auction, a 1969 Francis Bacon triptych sold for $142.4 million. We’ll get back to that in a minute, but there is an entire chapter in “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark” (I cannot recommend this book enough!) on a 2006 sale of another Francis Bacon triptych at Christie’s London that was estimated to bring in £3.5-5.5 million.

Five point five million pounds ($10.2 million) would have been a world auction record for the artist. At the Impressionist and modern art auction held at Christie’s two nights earlier, £5.5 million would have purchased two oils by Claude Monet, Péches and Oliviers et palmiers, vallée de Sasso; a Camille Pissarro, La vallée de la Seine aux Damps, jardin d’Octave Mirbeau; and a gorgeous and large Paul Cézanne, Maisons dans la venture. 

That was 2006. The final bid on that triptych was £3.5 million, and with auction house/buyer charges, it sold for £3.8 million. Francis Bacon’s work is highly coveted, because the artist died in 1992, and is largely considered one of the most important British artists ever to have lived and painted. This 2006 record was broken by another Bacon painting in 2007, Study for Portrait II, with the sale at auction of £14 million ($27.6 million) again at Christie’s London. Sotheby’s beat that Bacon record the same year, with the sale of Study from Innocent X. That painting sold for $52.7 million, almost doubling the Christie’s record and elevating Bacon to an exclusive arena in art history. In two years, the value of Bacon’s work rose from £3.8 million to $53 million.

The record for most expensive artwork ever sold changes hands/artists frequently. In 2010, it was held by a Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,  which sold for $106 million at a Christie’s auction. In 2012, this was beat by the sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which sold at Sotheby’s for $120 million. And then this past Tuesday, that record was shattered by Bacon’s three canvases, each six feet high, depicting friend and rival Lucien Freud sitting in a chair.


The buyer has not been identified by Christie’s, but was bid on by dealer William Acquavella for a client. There were seven underbidders in total, and bidding lasted 10 minutes, propelling from the opening bid of $40 million to a final price $57 million more than the $85 million Christie’s had estimated the triptych would fetch.

Whether or not you would have paid that much (and I wouldn’t have. That $142 million would go so many other places first), auctions are a fascinating thing. Most, like this one at Christie’s, are invitation only, and the bidders have all been vetted in advance. Dealers come on behalf of clients, high roller collectors make appearances, museum representatives come with board approval as to how much they are allowed to spend, and there is an entire section of women in black dresses on phones bidding on behalf of international buyers.

A few things about an auction are completely transparent –the number of people bidding in the room, the hammer price, the auctioneer’s performance. Almost everything else is opaque: who is actually bidding, how estimates and reserve prices are set, which bids are real and which artificial. Does the auction house itself own the painting being shown? Has it guaranteed the price to the consignor, and thus have a financial interest in the outcome?

The auctioneer has a book in front of him on the podium noting the order of the lots to be brought up for auction, the reserve price, where expected bidders on each lot are sitting in the audience, as well as any bids left in advance by those wishing to remain anonymous. Things like where a specific painting is placed in the order of lots for auction, the pacing of the auctioneer’s bid offers, and the psychology of bidders are all delicately moving elements that make an auction the spectacle it is.

A [typical] auction has the most expensive works interspersed between Lots 12 and 45, with the feature lot between 25 and 30. If there are three or four strong lots, the feature work can come as early as Lot 10…An expensive work is followed by three or four with lower estimates. The spacing builds peaks of interest and provides reference prices to make the works between seem more reasonable.

All auctions are video recorded to protect the auction from a bidder who might regret their fast paddle-work the moment the bidding has ended. You enter into a contract to buy the work you win, though secretly, auction houses sometimes offer financing for more established clients, and can also accept payment in the form of artwork consigned for later sale.

It’s important to note that while the $142.4 million dollar hammer price is staggering, there is some doubt as to whether the Bacon triptych is actually the most expensive piece of artwork sold at auction. When accounting for inflation, the highest price ever paid at auction for a single piece of art would be the $82.5 million paid in 1990 ($147 million in today’s dollars, $3 million more than the Bacon sold for this week) for Van Gogh’s Portrait of Doctor GachetI know which one I’d rather have hanging in my living room.

Understandably, I am dying to go to an auction. There are sometimes standing-room-only admissions granted at night auctions; it’s now on my must list to see one in person.

all quotes © Don Thompson, “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark”

15 thoughts on “The Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold

  1. When I was a preteen-teen my girlfriend Sarah and I went through this phase of reading 1950s farm girl romances about other teen girls and I distinctly remember one (I remember so much about those books, down to the SMELL!) about a girl who waved wildly (and unsuspectingly) to a friend across a field during a 4H auction and ended up buying a cow.

    This is different.

    I’ve been following this story too, and it’s fascinating to me. I always wonder, do the auction houses deliberately underestimate what they think a piece will go for? They ALWAYS seem to blow the estimates out of the water. Part of me would love to see one in person, but I get stressed out watching Storage Wars, so I don’t know. Just standing there might be too much for me!

    1. I just laughed out loud. I would absolutely have to tape my hands to my sides to avoid scratching my nose at the wrong time. Though, of course, the herd of spectators at the back of an auction are rarely ever bidding. The estimates take into account the reserve price of the painting (what they’re promised the consignor or dealer, plus fees) and the provenance and quality of the painting. There is a lot of information in “$12 Million Stuffed Shark” about how the reserve prices work and how the estimates are established. Some set it too low to encourage bidding, some set it too high and the painting is “burned” or brought in by the auction house unsold. The bidding always starts under the reserve price and once it’s reached the auctioneer can say, “I’m selling, then” and the bidding can continue. Fascinating stuff!

      I figure, I’m never going to go sky diving or any other adrenaline seeking nonsense, so an auction is as close as I can get ;) xo

    1. I’ve never seen it! Shame on me. Was there a part in the movie about art auctions? Now I’m curious! xo

      1. it’s a beautiful movie loosely based on an equally beautiful book. The two are nothing alike, but i still loved them. The sub-plot is a family painting, thought to be a La Tour, that the family want to sell – the auctioneer is played by Stephen Fry. It’s at the end, in case you want to skip to it ;)

  2. don’t hate me but i think i’d rather have the francis bacon. of course not at that price, maybe a reproductive print or something. i love the colors and the lines, though i am not sure about the face. what is going on there?

    the idea of going to a real auction like this, (or even the lowliest of auctions) terrifies me. i would be constantly panicking about moving which would create the overwhelming urge to move and itch the entire time. and to top it off i’d probably have the urge to “test” it and see how much i could move around. so i’d be moving constantly but trying not to move the whole time and in my head i’d be talking to myself about this the whole time and i wouldn’t really experience any part of the auction other than this part anyway. basically i am pretty sure i’d revert back to being about 6 years old but also while having an adult sized panic attack. i can see why people hire people to go to auctions for them. xo

    ps thanks for the book rec. i loved greek mythology when i was a kid too!!!

    1. I could never hate you :) And I can’t ever really hate art, I just prefer some styles over others. You should check out Bacon’s triptych that sold in 2006, his self portrait if you’re curious about faces: He’s certainly unique!

      I love your panic! There are secret tells a bidder will use to bid that the auctioneer has to keep his eye out for. Scratching their nose, leaving the room, nodding. Rarely do the big bidders (famous dealers or collectors) raise their paddle. I’d love to bid once on something, but only if the bidding was escalating at rapid speed so I was guaranteed not to be the highest bidder. I’d start the bidding off on a Monet, for example, knowing someone would bid higher, just to say I was “outbid” on a Monet. ;) I’m sure this is why I’ve never been invited to an art auction!

      You’ll love that book on Greek myths and so will the boys. It’s such a classic. I bought it for my nieces last Christmas and fell in love with it all over again. xo

  3. oh, I love Francis Bacon. I would kill to have one of his triptychs somewhere in my non-existent home. but then again, a copy or print would do, too. I love looking at originals in a museum. and I do understand the allure of them. but do I need it at home? not so much. maybe that’s why I prefer photographs to decorate my walls these days. they are meant to be reproduced.

    as to spending that kind of money on art. I don’t know. I find it all very fascinating. some days, I think it’s irresponsible because you could do so much else with it, on other days I think it’s good for these people. it’s fantastic art after all…

    1. I know how you feel. Some people define having “made it” as owning fancy cars or a Rolex…me? All I want is a Monet. That’s how I’ll know I’ve made it.

      There’s a really poignant line (among many) in Steve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty” about the way money changes artwork and the way people approach it: “She started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.” It’s an interesting thought process, especially when it comes to auctions. xo

  4. Ok the section of women in black dresses got me. For real? I’m so in the dark about auctions…although I have always thought it would be interesting to go to one and you know…bid the $5.00 I can afford (but never mind). It’s just mind boggling how much people have to throw around in the first place. I mean that much on a painting…imagine how much else they have to spend.

    1. Oh yeah! There’s usually a whole bay of them, finely dressed, handling phone calls. I’m honestly in the dark to, outside of what I’ve read about (which, admittedly, has been a ton) but I have have have to go to one in real life one day. I imagine it would be such a trip, watching people bid millions and millions. I’d bid once, if they let me, at the opening bid, haha. Knowing it would sky rocket past me and I’d be off the hook :) xo

  5. Is it ok that I find the whole thing utterly repugnant?
    What a ridiculous amount of money and it all seems so much more about status and ownership than anything else. Paintings such as these should be in galleries. End of. x

    1. Totally okay to find it gross. That sort of display of wealth is vulgar in any other setting, except somehow art makes it okay? It’s confusing. I can’t entirely agree though that paintings only belong in galleries. I want a Monet of my own one day! xo

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