What are some of the most expensive artworks to have ever been sold at auction, and why do record-breaking auction performances seem to be on the rise?

11 March, 2021

Last month, we witnessed the historic sale of Florentine master Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Young Man Holding a Roundel’, which achieved an astonishing $92.2 million at Sotheby’s Master Week in New York. This price made it the most valuable Master painting ever sold at auction, in addition to being the most valuable portrait of any era ever sold. This news sparked us to look back at some of the most expensive artworks sold by auction houses in the last few years and ask ourselves why record-breaking auction performances seem to be on the rise.


Sandro Botticelli, ‘Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel’, c.1480-84


Last June, Sotheby’s organised a marathon virtual sale, which was conducted remotely by auctioneer Oliver Baker in London and generated an impressive total of $363.2 million. The sale was led by Francis Bacon’s ‘Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus’ (you can now purchase this print on our site here), which sold just over its pre-sale estimate of $80 million. Whilst the pricey sale of Bacon’s was unsurprising, Sotheby’s also saw eight new records being broken during the marathon, including late Canadian artist Matthew Wong’s ‘The Realm of Appearances’, which went under the hammer for $1.8 million, beating his former record price of $62,500. 


Francis Bacon, ‘Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus’, 1981


Similarly, the sale of his ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ briefly made David Hockney the most expensive living artist in 2018, when his famous painting sold for £90.3 million on the way to a $357.60 million total. Additionally, in 2019, Ed Ruscha’s smashed records at Christie’s evening sale of post-war and contemporary art. Ruscha’s ‘Hurting the Word Radio #2’ sparked a bidding war, which pushed it way past its pre-sale estimate and the artist’s previous auction record ($30.4 million), selling for $46 million. 

However, nothing can beat the record set by Leonardo Da Vinci’s long lost ‘Salvator Mundi’, a painting of Jesus Christ, which was commissioned by King Louis XII of France more than 500 years ago. In 2017, following 20 minutes of rigorous telephone bidding, it sold at Christie’s in New York for $450.3 million, breaking the world record for any work of art ever sold at auction. 


Christie's main headquarters at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Long-lost da Vinci painting fetches $450 million, a world record at Christie's in NY in November 2017.

Joining ‘Salvator Mundi’ on the list of most expensive artworks ever sold are Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, which sold for $119.9 million in 2012; Amedeo Modigliani’s ‘Nude Lying on her Left Side’, which sold for $157.2 million in 2018; Pablo Picasso’s ‘Women in Algiers’, which sold for $179.4 million in 2015; and Claude Monet’s ‘Meules’, from his Haystacks series, which broke the auction record for impressionist art when it sold for $110.7 million in 2019.


So, how can we explain these record-breaking sales? There is no doubt that bids in the tens or even hundreds of millions are becoming commonplace in the art world. 


According to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report 2020, global art sales in 2019 eased to an estimated $64.1 billion with the volume of transactions hitting an all-time high of $40.5 million and auction sales making up 42% of the market.  


The fact that more and more artworks are breaking auction records can be owed to a few interconnecting factors: first, it is driven by a growing and more enthusiastic field of art collectors around the world; second, it was boosted by international economic growth up until recently, which helped increase competition for high-valued pieces; third, it is helped by estimates that have been carefully calculated to encourage bidding; fourth, it is promoted by strategic and aggressive marketing by the auction houses; and finally, it is solidified by the expert ability that the auction houses have to locate the rarest and very best artworks in the world. While all of these factors are key to achieving the highest sales under the hammer, the top auction houses agree that even with the best of marketing strategies, it’s really the collectors who drive the market. 


Today’s art buyers are informed. They understand the importance of provenance, rarity or newness to the market. 


"People are doing their research. If I say 'Our Modigliani portrait is the most important to come up in the market,' I have to be able to back that up, because the market is smart."

-Lisa Dennison, Chairman of Sotheby's North and South America and the former director of the Guggenheim Museum, as quoted by the CNN.


It is also important to note that millennial buyers are rapidly playing a more significant role in the art market. Contrary to their Boomer counterparts, they are generally more transactional and more attuned to how their art behaves as a capital asset. Similarly, they also bring a sense of idealism to their art investments, with a much greater tendency to invest in artworks and artists to fulfil philanthropic aspirations. If auction houses wish to continue breaking records, then they will need to cater to this new generation of ‘hip’, tech-savvy art buyers.


Next month, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Warrior’ is set to go under the hammer in a single-lot evening sale at Christie’s Hong Kong. Evaluated at between $31 and $41 million, it is set to become the most expensive Western artwork ever sold at auction in Asia. It would appear that a new record is on the horizon. Stay tuned.  


Abigail R. Esman, Why art auction records keep being broken, CNN,

Benjamin Sutton, ‘Record-Breaking Ed Ruscha Brings in $52.4 Million at Christie’s’, Artsy, November 2019,

Deutsche Welle, ‘Most expensive artworks sold at auction’,

Edward Helmore, ‘Leonardo da Vinci painting sells for $450m at auction, smashing records’, November 2017,

Evan Beard, ‘The Rapid Rise of Millennial Collectors Will Change How Art Is Bought and Sold’,

Sotheby’s, ‘The $92 Million Renaissance Man & More Masters Week Results’, January 2021,

The Jakarta Post, ‘Eight new auction records set during Sotheby’s marathon virtual sale’, July 2020,

UBS, ‘7 Insights from the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report 2020’,

Aurelia Clavien

Related articles


LTArt artist Francesco Irnem uses Google Voice to answer five questions related to his creative process and the wider art industry.


This week, our CEO, Francesca Casiraghi, was proud to have been invited as a guest speaker on The Redhedge Podcast, created by Redhedge Asset Management LLP.


Following the wave of excitement around NFTs that has taken over the art world, all eyes have now turned to CryptoArtists. To help guide you through the crowd, here's a list of the top 5 CryptoArtists to watch.


The LTArt team dives into the phenomenon that has been shaking up the art world for the last weeks: NFTs (Non -Fungible tokens).


After a year where physical art events have been pushed online, Art Dubai became the first international art fair to take place physically since the start of the pandemic.

Key Findings from the Art Basel & UBS Art Market 2021 Report

Art Basel and UBS 2021 report - key findings

Stay Informed

Be the first to receive our weekly art news, curated collections, new arrival alerts and event updates by subscribing to our newsletter. You can unsubscribe at any time, so there's really no reason not to give it a try!