In the stratosphere

With the London Olympics coming up, it seems a good moment to think about art-market record-setters. The list of the most expensive paintings ever sold comes in slightly different versions, according to how prices are adjusted and how currencies are converted, but we give one (reasonably authoritative) version below.

But of course, the art market being what it is – a land of smoke and mirrors – even the Number One slot is uncertain. Since last year, rumours have circulated about the sale of Paul Cézanne’s “Card Players” for an astronomical $250m, almost double the previous record. Did it sell for that amount? Did it actually sell at all? If so, who was the buyer?

Although nothing has been officially announced, various sources (many of them using nothing but their “nose” and the process of elimination) are now cautiously certain that the private sale did take place, at something around the rumoured figure, and that the buyers were the royal family of Qatar. They are some of the biggest players in the market at the moment – but, frustratingly for those who like to make lists, they never confirm or deny a purchase. So although the royal family’s supposed holdings are now as fabled as Ali Baba’s cave, we do not actually know what they have bought, or where they keep it, or even what they intend to do with it.

Willem de Kooning’s ‘Woman II’ (1953) © Willem de Kooning Estate. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeeve

But this, again, is not unusual in this most opaque of marketplaces. Buyers are often unknown, and the whereabouts of many of the world’s great pictures is equally mysterious.

The Top Ten list is remarkable in several other ways. It contains no work made before 1880. Until recently, a single Old Master made the cut: Rubens’s “Massacre of the Innocents”, painted in 1611 and sold in 2002 for $76.7m. For once the vendors – an Austrian family – were more mysterious than the buyer, who was Kenneth Thomson, the Canadian press baron who became Lord Thomson of Fleet. And we have excluded – since it was an institutional sale – Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon” (1556-59), acquired for the British nation in 2009 for £50m.

Very recent sales have seen the prices spiralling up. The most recent – which we have shoehorned into 10th place in our list, even though there are other (slightly shadowy) contenders for that slot, is Mark Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow”, painted in 1961 and sold for just under $87m in New York last month.

Picasso’s ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ (1932) Private Collection/Photo © Christie’s Images/The Bridgeman Art Library/DACS

The Rothko was a salesman’s dream. It had perfect provenance, acquired from Marlborough Fine Art in London in 1967 by David Pincus, one of the leading American collectors in the second half of the century, and came fresh as a daisy from the connoisseur’s estate without having sullied itself in the marketplace for a full 45 years.

The previous highest price paid at auction for a Rothko was “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)” sold in May 2007, for $72.8 million. The market was then climbing up to its highest peak just before the recession and sharp decline of 2008 – so the price-line of these Rothko records would, if drawn as a chart, neatly follow the general fortunes of the top echelons of the contemporary art market for those years. Up and up, down and down, then back up and – oh yes – up a bit more.

Value: Klimt’s ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ (1907) © Neue Gallerie New York

Another record, for those who like these things, was the first time the $100m mark was breached, breaking the record that Van Gogh had held since 1990. It was another Picasso, “Garçon à la pipe” (1904), which went for $104.1m in 2004. The buyer? Anonymous, naturally.

There are some other good stories, not all of them happy. In 1987, Van Gogh’s “Irises”, painted in 1889, the year before the artist’s death while he was living at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, became the most expensive painting ever sold, setting a record that stood for two and a half years. Then it was sold for $53.9m to the Australian businessman Alan Bond, but the sale was never completed and “Irises” was later re-sold in 1990 to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the strength of the Japanese economy and the yen meant some spectacular sales, and prices that have only recently been beaten. A good example of what happened to this Japanese boom was Pierre Auguste Renoir’s “Le moulin de la Galette” (1876), which fetched an astonishing $78.1m in 1990 when it sold to Ryoei Saito (who also acquired Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr Gachet”). Just a few years later, in 1997, the Renoir was sold again, to a “European private collector”, for $50m.

Caveat emptor.

Constable’s ‘The Lock’ (1824)

The Lock

John Constable’s “The Lock”, the fifth of the large paintings of the Stour valley of 1819-25, is the last in private hands; it has been in Spain’s Thyssen-Bornemisza collection since 1990.

Purchased for £10m, it was then the most highly priced work by a British-born artist ever sold at auction. It comes back to the block at Christie’s on July 3 with an estimate of £20m-£25m and, if it reaches this, it will scoop the same record again, beating Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, sold in 2008 for $33.6m.

But will this magnificent painting actually reap a profit for its vendors? We asked the FT’s finest numbercrunchers to work out, taking into account all costs, inflation, lost interest and other factors, how it has fared as an investment over a 22-year period.

If you are interested in the detailed answer, please go to But the short answer is that, for the vendors to get their money back, the hammer needs to fall at – £59.8m. Let’s see ...

The Top 10: Most expensive paintings ever sold

1. The Card Players (1892-93)

Paul Cézanne

Sold 2011 by George Embiricos

Buyer: Royal family of Qatar (?)

Price: $250m (inflation-adjusted $254m)

2. No. 5, 1948 (1948)

Jackson Pollock

Sold 2006 by David Geffen

Buyer: unknown

Price: $140m (adjusted $159.4m)

3. Woman III (1953)

Willem de Kooning

Sold 2006 by David Geffen

Buyer: Steven A. Cohen

Price: $137.5m (adjusted $156.5m)

4. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907)

Gustav Klimt

Sold 2006 by Maria Altmann

Buyer: Ronald Lauder, Neue Galerie

Price: £135m (adjusted $152.6m)

5. Portrait of Dr Gachet (1890)

Vincent van Gogh

Sold 1990 by Siegfried Kramarsky family

Buyer: Ryoei Saito

Price: $82.5m (adjusted $146.5m)

6. Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Sold 1990 by Betsey Whitney

Buyer: Ryoei Saito

Price: $78.1m (adjusted $138.7m)

7. Garçon à la pipe (1905)

Pablo Picasso

Sold 2004 by Greentree Foundation

Buyer: Barilla Group (?)

Price: $104.2m (adjusted $126.4m)

8. The Scream (1895)

Edvard Munch

Sold 2012 by Petter Olsen

Buyer: Royal family of Qatar (?)

Price: $119.9m

9. Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932)

Pablo Picasso

Sold 2010 by Frances Lasker Brody estate

Buyer: unknown

Price: $106.5m (adjusted $112m)

10. Orange, Red, Yellow (1961)

Mark Rothko

Sold 2012 by David Pincus estate

Buyer: unknown

Price: $86.9m

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