The Art World through its 10 Costliest Paintings

We’re celebrating the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for a world-record $450,312,500 (including fees, etc.) at Christie’s (NYC) on 15 November, 2017, by examining the contemporary art world through its ten most expensive paintings. We’ll recount the sketchy provenance of da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi—or is that Bernardino Luini’s or Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio’s? We’ll also offer an introduction or primer to some of the major players in the contemporary market—you’ve got to know your Geffens from your Griffiths and your Sheiks from your Sheikha Al Thanis and not just your Boltraffios from your Leonardos! Finally, beware Bouvier…


 Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c.1500, oil on walnut

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c.1500, oil on walnut

(1) Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (1480) for $450,000,000. 

DISCLAIMER: AAMag reckons that the painting sold for ~$450,000,000 at Christie’s (NYC) this year is a genuine Leonardo da Vinci. We’re prepared to go with the experts on this one. It’s certainly got that marvellous softness that characterises so much of what remains of the artist’s small oeuvre. It’s certainly head-and-shoulders above the other Salvator Mundis that are associated with Leonardo. However, there are plenty of doubters. Jerry Saltz’s scathing—yet ultimately, uninformed—article is certainly worth reading, it’s fun at least: ‘Christie’s Is Selling This Painting for $100 Million. They Say It’s by Leonardo. I Have Doubts. Big Doubts.’ Michael Daley’s ArtWatch UK offers a rather more serious review of the evidence here. Daley’s review, which is ongoing, takes issue with the painting’s cropping, restoration, and provenance. Of these, why is provenance so important? It’s the chronological record of the painting’s owners through time. Every gap in the record is the painting unaccounted for. Every gap is an opportunity for the painting to have been stolen, forged, destroyed, or imitated. Every gap is therefore a weakness in the painting’s authenticity. Ultimately, you don’t pay hundreds-of-millions for a forgery or imitation work. You want the real deal. The genuine article. Perhaps one of the most interesting interventions from an art historian on provenance, is Thomas de Wesselow’s The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of Resurrection (2012) which suggests that given the gaps in the histories of most master works, the eponymous shroud ought to be taken as genuine. In many ways, one’s belief in provenance is closer to an article of faith than you’d first imagine. In this spirit, we’ve included below the fullest provenance for the Salvator Mundi that can be condensed in a small paragraph. Leonardo da Vinci probably painted the Salvator Mundi for King Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany in the late 1490’s when the painter was based in Milan. Or, in the early 1500’s when da Vinci moved to Florence. The Salvator Mundi reappeared in 1625, when Henrietta Maria married King Charles I of England and brought the Salvator Mundi to the Palace of Placentia at Greenwich. Henrietta fled during the English Civil Wars. Charles was executed in 1649. The Salvator Mundi was then auctioned-off by the Commonwealth to Captain John Stone in 1651. Charles II returned to England during the Restoration in 1660. Stone subsequently returned the ‘Leonard de Vince’ that same year. From then, the trail goes cold… Sir Charles Robinson bought the da Vinci for £2.10 in 1763. Sir Francis Cook then bought the same painting as a Bernardino Luini in 1900. The painting reappeared as a Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio in 1958. It’s thought to have been purchased and brought to the United States by a ‘Mr Kunst’ for £45 that same year. Alexander Parish and Robert Simon, with a consortium of other dealers, then found the painting at auction in New Orleans, 2005. It cost them $10,000.

Parish and Simon didn’t know that it was a da Vinci. Instead, they thought they’d bought a saleable Renaissance work. Warren Adelson, Alex Parish, and Robert Simon then restored and verified it as a genuine Leonardo da Vinci. They sold the painting to Yves Bouvier via Sotheby’s for $70,000,000 in 2013. The same year, Bouvier sold the painting for $127,500,000 to Dmitry Rybolovlev, who then re-sold the work for the record smashing figure of $450,000,000 via Christie’s this year. No-one, save those actually involved in the transaction, know the buyer’s identity. We’ve heard people point to Asia, the Middle East, and America. For now, like so much of the painting’s history, it’s a mystery.

EDIT: It's been falsely rumoured that the buyer was Mohammed bin Salman. Christie's has now confirmed that the buyer was Abu Dhabi's department of culture and tourism. Tahanina & Mabruk! Congrats Abu Dhabi!



 Willem de Kooning,  Interchange,  1955, oil on canvas

Willem de Kooning, Interchange, 1955, oil on canvas

(2) Willem de Kooning’s Interchange (1955) for $300,000,000 in 2016.

Kenneth C. Griffin bought Willem de Kooning’s Interchange (1955) for ~$300,000,000 from David Geffen in 2016. Incredibly, Griffen also bought Geffen’s Number 17A (1948) by Jackson Pollock for ~$200,000,000 at the same time as the de Kooning. Griffen’s ~$500,000,000 outlay thus surpasses the ~$450,000,000 forked out by the mysterious buyer for da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. Griffin can certainly afford them having founded Citadel LLP, a very, very successful hedge-fund, in 1990. It’s thought to have some $149,000,000,000 – that’s one-hundred-and-forty-nine-billion dollars’ – worth of assets under management (AUM). Griffin hasn’t just bought de Koonings and Pollocks from Geffen. In 2006, Jasper John’s False Start (1959) was prised away for the princely sum of ~$80,000,000.

Geffen’s art collection is legendary, and was recently valued it at ~$2,300,000,000 in 2015. He also sold Woman III (1953) for $137,500,500 and Police Gazette (1955) for $63,500,000 to Steven A. Cohen in 2006. Cohen is another of the legendary art collectors with a collection Roy Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece (1962) for a cool ~$165,000,000 and Picasso’s Le Rêve (1932) for ~$155,000,000, Jasper John’s Flag (1954) for $110,000,000, Andy Warhol’s Turquoise Marilyn (1964) for $80,000,000 and is thought to have purchased van Gogh’s Peasant Women Against a Background of Wheat and Gauguin’s Bathers (1903) from somewhere between $100-150,000,000 from Steve Wynn, who’s as famous for putting an elbow through Le Rêve as he is his collection. 

It was probably wise that Cohen’s SAC Capital Advisors owned a stake in Sotheby’s for much of the 2000’s.  Geffen appears as the vendor of the tenth most expensive artwork on this list, Jackson Pollock’s No.5 1948 (1948) for ~$140,000,000 to David Martinez in 2006. Geffen’s interests aren’t just in the visual arts. He founded Asylum Records (The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan) in 1970 and Geffen Records (John Lennon, Nirvana, The Stone Roses) in 1980. Later, Geffen co-founded DreamWorks Pictures with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994.



 Paul Cézanne.  The Card Players,  1892-1893, oil on canvas

Paul Cézanne. The Card Players, 1892-1893, oil on canvas

(3) Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players (1892–93) for $250-300,000,000 in 2011.

Cézanne painted five versions of The Card Players in the 1890s. Currently, they’re viewable at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Barnes Foundation, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Musée d’Orsay. George Embiricos, the Greek shipping magnate, owned the last one to remain in private hands before selling it to the Royal Family of Qatar in 2011. It’s also the most angular and austere, it’s one of the great, great works for understanding the transition from Impressionism into Cubism.

It’s difficult to distinguish where the Royal Family ends and the Qatari State begins—if indeed, there is such a difference. Sheik Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali Al Thani, whose collection of contemporary Arab art is unrivalled; Sheik Saud bin Muhammed Al Thani, who was Minister for Culture, Arts, and Heritage from 1997 to 2005; and Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani, the sister to the ruling Emir Tanmin bin Hamad Al Thani and Chairsperson of Qatar Museums Authority (QMA). She’s often credited as the most influential person in the arts today.


 Paul Gauguin,  When Will You Marry Me?  1892, oil on canvas

Paul Gauguin, When Will You Marry Me? 1892, oil on canvas

(4) Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry Me? or Nafea faa ipoipo? (1892) for $210-300,000,000 in 2014.

Qatar enticed Peter and Ruedi Staechelin, the son and granddaughter of Rudolf Staechelin, to sell Gauguin’s Nafea faa ipoipo? for the eye-watering sum in 2014. Previously, the painting had been on loan to the prestigious Kunstmuseum, Basel. However, the Staechelins were able to sell the painting after it became known that the museum would be closing for renovations. Rudolf Staechelin had stipulated that the painting must remain on display, Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani was therefore able to purchase the painting for the Qatar Museums Authority. However, its current whereabouts is unknown. Her parents, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, bought Mark Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) (1950) for $70,000,000 from David Rockefeller in 2007. It’ll complement the eleven Rothkos purchased from J. Ezra Merkin due to the fallout in Wall Street from the Bernie Madoff Affair. The Staechelin’s sale of Nafea faa ipoipo? is now the subject of a lawsuit. Simon de Pury, who trained at Sotheby’s, bought parts of the Phillips (formerly, Phillips the Auctioneers) from Bonhams with Daniella Luxembourg in 2001. Phillips, which counted Napoleon among its clients, was begun in 1796 by Harry Phillips, one time clerk to James Christie, who founded the auction house of the same name in 1766. Phillips became Phillips de Pury before de Pury sold the company to Mercury Group in 2008, who subsequently changed the name back to Phillips. It’s since emerged that the Staechelins failed to honour a verbal agreement to pay de Phillips some $10,000,000 for facilitating the sale of Nafea faa ipoipo? to Qatar Museums.


 Jackson Pollock,  Number 17A,  1955, oil on fiberboard

Jackson Pollock, Number 17A, 1955, oil on fiberboard

(5) Jackson Pollock’s Number 17A (1948) for $200,000,000~ in 2016.

We’ve already covered Griffin’s purchase of Kooning’s Interchange (1955) for $300,000,000 in 2016. Pollock’s Number 17A comprises the other half (or, forty-percent) of the deal with Geffen. Number 17A is an early example of Pollock’s distinctive style for which he earned the moniker, Jack the Dripper. Furthermore, it appeared in LIFE magazine’s famous 1949 feature, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ The article’s tone mocked and praised in an alternatingly measure. Speaking at Pollock’s funeral, de Kooning famously stated that the artist ‘broke the ice’ for Abstract Expressionism (de Kooning, Rothko, Pollock, Barnett Newman, et al.) in America.

So, why is Pollock, but also de Kooning, Rothko, and Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, and, to a lesser extent, Arshile Gorky, so sought after? And, in particular, by wealthy Americans?  For one, they’re not yet tucked away in the world’s greatest museums, there are still some on the market. For two, they represent the dawning of a truly American, and not European, art. For three, there are enough wealthy collectors, often Americans themselves, who ‘make the market’ for their works. It’s worth considering, perhaps, what Abstract Expressionism means for collectors like Griffin and Cohen, who also bought a Pollock from Geffen for $52,000,000 in 2003. Thomas E. Dewey’s ‘Address Accepting of the Presidential Nomination at the Republican National Convention’ was given in Philadelphia, 1948, the same year that Pollock completed Number 17A. Dewey lost to Harry S. Truman in one of the great political upsets in modern history. However, on that day in 1948, with victory thought to be within reach, Dewey proudly declared the Grand Old Party’s ‘goal to be a strong and free America in a free world of free men—free to speak their own minds, free to develop new ideas, free to publish whatever they believe, free to move from place to place, free to choose their occupations, free to enjoy and to save and to use the fruits of their labor, and free to worship God, each according to his own concept of His grace and His mercy.’

LIFE magazine’s question, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’, offered the reader the chance to make up his/her own mind. For, after all, this was an America of free men, free to develop new ideas, free to publish whatever they believe, free to drip paint however they saw fit, free to buy those paintings with the fruits of their own labour as they saw fit. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the wealth involved in either Griffen’s Citadel LLP or Cohen’s Point72 Asset Management and SAC Capital Advisors, which ceased to exist after various insider-trading scandals erupted in 2016, finds an affinity with Republican Party ideals just as their respective CEOs find one with the expensive artists they collect… Griffin supported Mitt Romney’s presidential bid of 2012 and Marco Rubio’s of 2016. Cohen donated some $2,000,000 to the Super PAC (political action committee) supporting the candidacy of Chris Christie in 2015. Romney, Rubio, and Christie are all representatives of that same Grand Old Party that Dewey led into the election of 1948. 

Interestingly, there’s another connection: We’ve already mentioned Sheikh and Sheikha Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned’s purchase of David Rockefeller’s Rothko in 2007. David Rockefeller was the youngest son of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who (co-)founded the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan (NYC) in 1929. David Rockefeller’s sibling, Abby’s second son, Nelson Rockefeller, also a Republican, served as Vice-President of the United States from 1974 to 1977. He famously called Abstract Expressionism ‘free enterprise painting’ and probably played some part in the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) sponsoring of Abstract Expressionism as a riposte to the perceived strictures upon art in the then USSR. For, as Dewey had said in that same address, well before Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, then Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, and the fall of the USSR in 1991, ‘As long as the world is half-free and half-slave, we must peacefully labour to help men everywhere achieve liberty.’

It’s tempting to suggest then, that the stories around Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko et al., are intimately interwoven in their artistic practice, sale, and collection just as their collectors’ stories are intimately interwoven with half-a-century of geopolitical struggle and the growth of the capitalist economy. Neat, isn’t it?


 Mark Rothko,  No.6 (Violet, Green and Red) , 1951, oil on canvas

Mark Rothko, No.6 (Violet, Green and Red), 1951, oil on canvas

(6) Mark Rothko’s No.6 (Violet, Green and Red) (1951) for $140,000,000 in 2014

The Al Thanis spent some ~$70,000,000 for David Rockefeller’s Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) in 2007. However, Dmitry Rybolovlev’s purchase of No.6 (Violet, Green and Red) (1951) by the same artist for $140,000,000 in 2014 suggests that Rockefeller’s asking price wasn’t outrageous, especially for the Sheikh and Sheikha. Rybolovlev bought No.6 (Violet, Green and Red) from the Christian and Cherise Moueix, proprietors of the prestigious wine-estate, Château Pétrus, via Bouvier, who’d actually paid the Moueix a mere ~$80,000,000 before selling it on to Rybolovlev for the vastly inflated sum of $140,000,000. Rybolovlev didn’t know this, yet. It was only during a chance encounter with Sandy Heller, Cohen’s art advisor, that Bouvier’s massive web of insider art dealing came to light.

It’s thought that Rybolovlev met with Heller on the Caribbean island of St Barts in late 2014. Heller’s employer, Cohen, had sold Amedeio Modigliani’s Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion (1917) to the Russian in 2011. Rybolovlev asked Heller how much Cohen had sold the Modigliani for. Cohen spoke to Rybolovlev the following day, the answer was ~$93,500,000. Rybolovlev was shocked, Bouvier’s figure was ~$118,000,000. Bouvier pocketed the difference along with the customary fees and commission. Moreover, it later transpired that this wasn’t the first time the dealer had profited this way. In fact, the Swiss had made hundreds of millions of dollars off the Russian.Rybolovlev and Bouvier’s case is ongoing. If you’re interested in finding out more, Sam Knight’s ‘The Bouvier Affair’ is a fine piece of journalism on their complicated, commercial, and personal relationship. 


 Rambrandt van Rijn,  Pendant Portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit,  1634, oil on canvas

Rambrandt van Rijn, Pendant Portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, 1634, oil on canvas

(7) Rembrandt van Rijn’s Pendant Portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit (1634) for ~$180,000,000 or €160,000,000 in 2015.

Éric and Robert de Rothschild sold Rembrandt’s Pendant Portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit to the Rijksmuseum and Louvre in 2015. Before then, Éric kept Maerten and Oopjen in a sort of ménage a trois on either side of his bed, in Paris. The Rijksmuseum and Louvre purchased the pair of paintings together and have promised to never separate Maerten and Oopjen from one another. Instead, the couple alternate between their homes in Paris and Amsterdam. Refreshingly, this is the first time on our list that one of the most expensive paintings’ purchaser is a museum and not a private individual.

 Pablo Picasso,  Les Femmes d'Alger ,  Version 'O' , 1955, oil on canvas

Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d'Alger, Version 'O', 1955, oil on canvas

(8) Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d'Alger (1955) Version ‘O’ for ~$179,365,000 in 2015.


Christie’s assures their bidders that the ‘O’ version of Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger series (1954-1955) is ‘the acknowledged masterpiece, joining Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Guernica (1937) on the undoubted peaks of Picasso’s oeuvre.’ 

It’s certainly true that Les Femmes d’Alger is something of a triumph that emerges from the darker and less productive 1940s, when Picasso was in Nazi-occupied Paris. You’ve probably heard the commonly recounted anecdote: One day, a German soldier walked into Picasso’s studio and pointed at Guernica. ‘Did you do that?’ Picasso replied, ‘No, you did.’ Picasso painted fifteen Femmes d’Alger from 1954 to 1955. The ‘O’ version was the final painting in the series, through which Picasso sought to re-interpret Eugène Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (1834). The last time the painting appeared at auction, at Sotheby’s, 1997, it sold for ~$31,900,000. In 2015, it was bought by Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, second cousin to the former Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, whose son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, brother to the Sheikha Al-Mayassa of the Qatar Museums Authority, deposed the former Emir in 2013. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, who’d served as Qatari Prime Minister since 2007, chose to exit politics with the, now former, Emir. He’s since bought a string of investments, so many in London that’s he’s often referred to as the ‘King’ of the London property market. It’s likely, however, that this Picasso trumps all of those for price per square foot.


 Amedeio Modigliani,  Nu couché, 1917, oil on canvas

Amedeio Modigliani, Nu couché, 1917, oil on canvas

(9) Amedeio Modigliani’s Nu couché (1917) for $170,405,000 in 2015.

Liu Yiqian and his wife, Ms Wang Wei’s (刘益谦) massive outlay bought one of the most instantly recognisable paintings in the world. Yiqian is one of a growing number of Asian investors and collectors who are massively changing the composition of the international art market. Notably, Pierre Chen’s collection spans works by Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Rothko, and de Kooning while Wang Jianlin bought Picasso’s Claude et Paloma (1950) for ~$28,200,000 in 2013 and Claude Monet’s Bassin aux nymphéas, les rosiers (1913) for ~$20,100,000 in 2015. Yiqian struck again at Basel in 2016 purchasing one of Gerhard Richter’s 930-7 Strips for ~$3,000,000. You can purchase another version here via Marian Goodman Gallery on Artsy. It’s not just collectors but artists also, in 2011, Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi beat Andy Warhol for yearly auction revenue and in 2016, China bought more art at more open auctions than the hitherto largest market, America.

Asia’s arrival on the international art market remains tricky: the Chinese government attempts to regulate capital flows in and out of the country; Christie’s and Sotheby’s and non-Chinese auction houses cannot sell on the mainland but must work through Hong Kong, which is ideally positioned due to China’s ‘one country, two systems’ promise to Britain on the occasion of Hong King’s return to China; Asia’s fluctuating currencies, which makes investing in dollar-denominated art more complicated; the contested status of many Chinese antiquities and artworks given that so many were looted throughout history, right up until present day; and the bad reputation that often, yet as often unfairly, attends Chinese collectors. Yiqian broke records for the most expensive Chinese work of art when he bid ~$36,600,000 for an antique porcelain cup in 2014. He then proceeded to drink from it! Furthermore, the disputed status of so many antiquities has led to a series of publicity stunts where Chinese collectors bid for, but ultimately, do not purchase, Chinese art works. In 2012, Slate Magazine reported that the following ditty had become known throughout the auction houses of the world:

‘The Chinese bid with verve and skill

And hence rack up a mighty bill,

“The money’s coming soon,” they cry

But oh my friend, they lie, they lie.’


 Jackon Pollock,  No.5 1948,  1948, oil on canvas

Jackon Pollock, No.5 1948, 1948, oil on canvas

(10) Jackson Pollock’s No.5 1948 (1948) for ~$140,000,000 in 2006.

Our final item on this list: Jackson Pollock’s No.5, 1948 (1948) set the highest price for a painting when it was sold—reportedly, although he denies this—to David Martinez in 2006. The seller? None other than Geffen. Interestingly, the ‘1948’ part of the title is somewhat misleading as it was extensively repainted in 1949. Alfonso A. Ossorio bought the painting for $1,500 from Pollock via Betty Parson’s Gallery in 1949. However, the canvas was damaged soon after it was sold, but before it was delivered to Ossorio. Pollock apparently attempted to quickly patch the painting up with a few dabs of paint. He’d thought, who’d notice anyway? Ossorio, who was a formidable artist in his own right, noticed immediately. Pollock then repainted the work, incorporating the rest of the painting to suit the damage. The result was a spectacularly layered painting of real depth. And so, it’s really two paintings in one. Martinez is also known for selling Francis Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer Talking (1969) for $70,000,000 in 2014.

D.S. Graham