Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings Sold at Auction in 2019

Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings Sold at Auction in 2019

It is finally our favourite time of year! With 2020 around the corner, The Arius team wants take a moment to look back and reflect on sensational auction highlights and the paintings sold that really defined the art market in 2019.

We have yet to attempt to get anywhere near the caliber of the record for the most expensive painting ever sold, The Salvator Mundi by Leonardo Da Vinci, but we're still excited to bring our attention to the artworks that took the cake this year!

Let’s dive right into it, shall we?


10. Arbres Dans Le Jardin De L'asile, 1889, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

$40 Million, sold via Christie’s New York on May 31, 2019

The piece was put up for auction at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Sale on May 31, 2019. The painting was estimated at a robust $25 million but before we could get there, bidding started at $17 million and the work was chased by at least 5 bidders over the phone. The hammer came down at a final bid of $33 million, coming to a full $40 million with buyers’ premiums.

‘It’s Van Gogh at the height of his power,’ enthuses Max Carter, Head of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department in New York. ‘The picture was painted during his breathtakingly fertile stay in the asylum at Saint-Rémy.’

“I’ll tell you that we’re having superb autumn days” wrote Van Gogh to his brother Theo on October 5th, 1889. He was sitting in his room in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausol asylum, describing to his brother how the autumn days had inspired this piece. He painted this piece within two weeks, taking inspiration from the fall foliage present in the asylum’s gardens, which have been a subject matter in a number of his signature landscapes. 

Photo credit: Christie's 


9. UNTITLED,1960, Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

$50 Million, sold via Sotheby’s New York on May 16, 2019

It was estimated that Untitled, 1960 would fetch somewhere between $35 Million and $50 Million. This piece caught the attention of 4 bidders and with a bid of $50 million, the war had come to an end. This Rothko masterpiece hit the high end of the auction for Sotheby’s that night, totaling at $341.9 million for 56 artworks. The sale produced seven world-record auction prices, six of them for works that were brought to auction for the first time.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) deaccessioned the piece from its permanent collection in February because the museum is seeking to “enhance” their current contemporary holdings by bringing in art works that address art historical gaps. With the proceeds from Untitled, 1960, SFMOMA hopes to redirect towards the need to diversify their collection.

Untitled, 1960 was one of 19 paintings that Rothko completed during the ladder end of his life, albeit, a very critical peak in his career as an abstract expressionist. Rothko passed away in 1970 and it was only a year later after his death where he was represented in the Museum of Modern Art. Prior to its sale, the picture had been shown by Sotheby’s in London, Taipei and Hong Kong.

Photo Credit: Sotheby's


8. Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1969), David Hockney (1937-)

$50.2 Million, sold via Christie’s London on March 6, 2019

Just last year, David Hockney’s piece Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) became the most expensive painting to be ever sold by a living artist with a world-record price of $90.3 million. This Hockney masterpiece led the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction in London on March 6. An intimate, albeit, monumental portrait of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, from the collection of Barney A. Ebsworth.

Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott is a perfect example of how David Hockney was a master at incorporating human relations in his signature “bright” and “lively” visual style. This iconic double portrait features his closest friend, Henry Geldzahler - a legendary art curator, critic and overall King of the New York art world. His presence dominates the composition of the piece as he framed around soaring skyscrapers. The second figure present in this piece is his then-boyfriend and painter, Christopher Scott, standing right next to Henry portrayed in a ghost-like manner, who is in awe of Henry. This piece is considered be a “watershed moment” for David Hockney. It was in 1968, when 30-year-old David Hockney began painting a series of 7 paintings on canvases that were each 7 ft by 10 ft. These 7 pieces would come to consume his life for the next 7 years and would come to define his career as a pop artist.

Image Credit: Christie's


7. Study for a Head, 1952, Francis Bacon (1909- 1992)

$50.4 Million sold via Sotheby’s New York on May 16, 2019

Study for a Head is one of Francis Bacon’s most iconic paintings from the Screaming Pope series. The hammer went down at a bid of $44 million after a fierce battle between 5 bidders. This piece is one of 6 small paintings from the series that was completed in 1952.

Grégoire Billault, the head of Sotheby’s contemporary art department in New York, said in a release, “The painting contains all the elements of the artist’s best-known works from this period—broken pince-nez glasses, a purple mozzetta, and of course the reverberating scream—and draws inspiration from the works of Velázquez, Munch, and Poussin, as well as Bacon’s lifelong exploration of the human condition. We greatly look forward to presenting the painting to collectors and admirers of Bacon’s genius around the world this spring.”

Photo Credit: Sotheby's 

6. Hurting the World Radio #2, 1964, Ed Ruscha (1937-)

$52.5 Million sold via Christie’s New York on November 13, 2019

Edward Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 caught the attention of 3 bidders on November 13, on the night of the Post-War and Contemporary Art auction in New York. The bidding war went on for more than 3 minutes, before the hammer finally came down at a bid of $46 million from an anonymous bidder on the phone. This iconic pop text painting achieved not only the highest result for a painting in New York’s fall auction, but also a new world auction record for Ed Ruscha.

Artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were dominating the flourishing art scene in New York in the 1960’s. Ed Ruscha was based in Los Angeles at the time and came into the pop art scene on his terms by inventing an entire new genre of art: paintings consisting solely of text. It was in the late 1950’s when he began to implement text into his works, using graphics to explore the relationship between object and illusion, using typography as "visual constructs".

With Hurting the Word Radio #2, he used billboards as his inspiration, fascinated with how they were a personification of the waves of prosperity and the rise of consumerism that was present in the United States at the time. In this piece, Ruscha uses clean and bold typography that mimicked the lettering on the billboards that he looked to for inspiration. His word of choice, which is “RADIO” in bright yellow against a vast, sky blue background, the mood of the piece is unmistakably upbeat and reflects the warm and balmy climate of his home state, California.

Image Credit: Christie's 


5. Double Elvis [Ferus Type], 1963, Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

$53 Million sold via Christie’s New York on May 15, 2019

This piece unites two of the most ventured figures in popular culture — The King of Rock n’ Roll, Elvis Presley and the Prince of pop art, Andy Warhol. Deemed as one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, this piece was up for grabs during the Christies Post-War and Contemporary Art sale on May 15, 2019

Ever since Warhol was a child, he was fascinated by the glittering allure of Hollywood, and Elvis was a personification of the hold that Hollywood had over young Warhol. Elvis is seen dressed as a gunslinger for the movie Flaming Star which he starred in. Double Elvis was painted in 1963 on linen with silver paint and silkscreen ink, paying tribute to the King of Rock whose level of celebrity that Warhol so coveted and admired.

Photo Credit: Christie's


4. Femme au Chien, 1962, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

$54.9 Million sold via Sotheby’s New York on May 14,2019

Femme au Chien had been in the hands of a Japanese collector for 29 years, he gave the piece up without much financial guarantee, allowing it to slip out of his hands by its $25-30 million pre-sale estimate. However, this piece was one of the top lots of the night with a final bid of $48 million, $54.9 Million with fees and premiums.

This piece depicts Picasso’s second wife Jacqueline Roque and his beloved Afghan hound, Kaboul. Picasso was especially fond dogs throughout his life, which is why we see Kaboul as a principal subject. His presence in the piece is rendered with clear affection and humor and a nod to Picasso’s adoration of these creatures.

Photo Credit: Sotheby's


3. Bouilloire et fruits, 1888, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

$59.3 Million sold via Christie’s New York on May 13, 2019

Before the sale of this piece, it was owned by magazine publisher, S.I. Newhouse Jr, who passed away in 2017. This pristine still life by Cézanne was just one of 11 trophy artworks of the Newhouse collection that entered the art market as it was most valuable, and it also had top-notch provenance.

When the time for bidding came around, this piece was chased around by high profile art collectors, mostly from Asia. This Cézanne has quite a tumultuous history as it was stolen in 1978 from art collector Michael Bakwin. Bouilloire et fruits re-appeared in the art market in 1999, the same year that Newhouse had bought it for $29.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction in London. 

 Photo credit: Christie's 


2. Buffalo II, 1964, Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)

$88.8 Million sold via Christies New York on May 15,2019

This piece came into the market on the behalf of the estate of the late Chicago collectors Robert and Beatrice Meyer. Before the sale of Buffalo II, Rauschenberg’s previous auction record was sitting at 18 million. With the sale of this piece, he beat that record by 5 times his previous record! Bidding opened at 50 million and there were 6 bidders that went head to head for this piece.

This piece came into fruition in 1964, when the United States happened to be going through a myriad of socio-political, technological and cultural changes. Robert Rauschenberg sat in his lofty studio above a billiard hall in New York in the middle of all these changes and recorded them one way or another in Buffalo II, the most evident one being the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Buffalo II is his most celebrated silkscreen painting that captured the social, political and artistic zeitgeist of the decade.

 Photo credit: Christie's 


1. Meules, 1890, Claude Monet (1840-1926)

$110.7 Million sold via Sotheby's New York on May 14, 2019

Meules by Claude Monet sold for double its pre-estimated value of $55 Million. The gavel came down at full force when a bid of $97 Million dollars bellowed the walls of the Sotheby’s auction room on May 14, 2019. With fees, the piece came to be $110.7 Million dollars, this winning bid shattered Monet’s previous record of $84.6 Million for Nymphéas en fleur (Water Lilies in Bloom), which sold at a Christies sale in New York in 2018. Not only did Meules take the cake on validating the value of the French Impressionist, the bid on this piece made it the first Impressionist piece to surpass $100 Million!

Meules is one of eight pieces left in private hands from the entirety of the Haystacks series. August Uribe, Sotheby’s Head of Impressionist and Modern Art states: “One of the most recognizable images in art history, Claude Monet’s Haystacks series has long served as an inspiration to countless artists since its creation in the early 1890s.” Monet created the Haystacks series between 1880 and 1891, inspired by the fields by his home in Giverny, Northern France. The Impressionist Master was taken away by the light changes throughout the day in those very fields. In an art-historical context, the series signifies the dexterity in his craft as he was able to paint the same subject multiple times under different lighting, atmospheric conditions, and in different seasons.

 Photo credit: Sotheby's 


In conclusion, 2019 wasn’t exactly the most robust year for auctions in comparison to previous years. Most of the artworks featured above were sold on the same dates, when several $50 million dollar lots were clustered into a single evening sale, the most notable sale being the Christies Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale that took place on May 15, 2019. However, that is completely overshadowed by the fact that all these works are rare, extremely high quality and the artists behind them are all well-known masters that are known to bring in hefty sums!

So that’s a wrap on the 10 most expensive paintings sold at auction in 2019! We always have so much fun looking back to the auction highlights and artworks that have defined the art market in the past year. See you at the end of 2020 as we highlight the successes from the year to come! 

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