The 11 Most Expensive Paintings in the World

March 30, 2016
Melinda Caliendo

Whether a casual fan of visiting museums or a collector yourself, there are pieces of art that are recognizable around the world. Irises, The Scream, Water Lillies, the list goes on. But are they among the most expensive paintings to be sold?

Whether a casual fan of visiting museums or a collector yourself, there are pieces of art that are recognizable around the world. Irises, The Scream, Water Lillies, the list goes on. But are they among the most expensive paintings to be sold?

Valuation of art can fluctuate, as different styles and names come in and out of style. Also, as the technology of inspecting the authenticity of these works improves, some ‘Unknown’ paintings are attributed to the masters … and some “master works” are identified as very, very well done copies. Sometimes, the value of the painting has more to do with the story behind the acquisition than what is on the canvas.

Intrigued yet? Check out the 11 most expensive paintings sold, as of September 2014, then go to your neighborhood art fair and try to find the next Van Gogh before their work hits these stratospheric prices. All prices are adjusted for inflation and the currency exchange at the time of the purchase.

Artist: Jasper Johns

Price: $120.3 million

Year Sold: 2010

The newest painting on the list, the 1954 work of Johns—his most famous—is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. The oil paint and collage on fabric, mounted on plywood, includes scraps of newspaper, giving it a very specific look at a time and place in history.

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Artist: Edvard Munch

Price: $124.2 million

Year Sold: 2012

One of 4 versions of the work done by Munch, the pastel-on-board bested the Picasso sale only 2 years later. One of the most recognizable images in the world, 3 of the 4 “Scream”s are in galleries across Norway, with only this one in private collection. While not the version that was heisted in 1994 or 2004, this Expressionist masterpiece is known—and desired—worldwide.

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Artist: Pablo Picasso

Price: $131.1 million

Year Sold: 2004

From Picasso’s “Rose Period,” this portrait of a young boy smoking a pipe was sold to an anonymous buyer, again breaking earlier sales records. According to the New York Times, the sales price of the painting was “nearly double” the price of previous Picasso paintings, partly because the sellers were the Whitney family estate. The $104.1 million price in 2004 was the first time that a painting had eclipsed the $100 million mark.

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Artist: Pierre-August Renoir

Price: $143.9 million

Year Sold: 1990

The large version of this famous painting hangs at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, but in 1990 a Japanese businessman won the auction for Renoir’s smaller version. Ryoei Saito purchased the painting through Sotheby’s New York for $78.1 million 25 years ago which, when adjusted for inflation, makes it the 8th most expensive painting ever sold. 1800’s Parisian society would be all a flutter over this transaction.

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Artist: Francis Bacon

Price: $145 million

Year Sold: 2013

The sale of this triptych caused a stir in 2013 with a “mystery buyer”, bidding over the phone. Purchased by Elaine Wynn, a noted art enthusiast, the 3 paintings make up 1 of 2 existing full-length triptychs of artist Lucian Freud. The auction house expected this series to be sold for roughly $85 million, and 5 different bidders vied for the Irish painter’s works.

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Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

Price: $152 million

Year Sold: 1990

Two days before Ryoei Saito purchased Renoir’s “Bal du Moulin de la Galette,” he purchased the Van Gogh portrait. It was painted in the last few months of Van Gogh's life, and is considered one of the most desirable paintings in private ownership. In fact, Saito reportedly sold the painting back to the auction house he bought it from for one-fifth of the previous price. The painting was last on display in 1990, and its whereabouts since leaving Saito’s collection are generally unknown.

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Artist: Gustav Klimt

Price: $158.4 million

Year Sold: 2006

Like a story from the movie “The Monuments Men,” this Klimt masterpiece was confiscated by the Nazis during World War II, and was only transferred back into private ownership from national Austrian galleries in 2006. That year, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder purchased the portrait from the niece of the woman portrayed in the painting for the Neue Galerie in New York City, a small gallery featuring German and Austrian art.

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Artist: Pablo Picasso

Price: $158.5 million

Year Sold: 2013

The most recent blockbuster sale, casino magnate Steve Wynn sold the painting for which he named a multimedia spectacular show at his eponymous hotel. Another portrait of Picasso’s mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, the painting was purchased by hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen. The 2 collectors had agreed to a sale years earlier, but Wynn famously put his elbow through the canvas in 2006, and the deal was postponed until the painting could be repaired.

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Artist: Willem de Kooning

Price: $162.4 million

Year Sold: 2006

Another Cohen acquisition, this painting was sold by David Geffen as part of a large-scale reduction of his art collection in 2006. The painting had hung in a gallery in Tehran, Iran for several years, but was unable to be displayed under rules of the government after the revolution in 1979, and was acquired by Geffen in 1994. De Kooning painted 6 different “Women” canvases during 1951-1953, with “Woman III” being the last held in private hands.

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Artist: Jackson Pollock

Price: 2006

Year Sold: $165.4 million

Shortly after Geffen sold the de Kooning masterpiece, he sold this famous Pollock work for an even larger sum. Through private sale, Mexican investor David Martinez added to his growing collection. The painting is thought to be one of Pollock’s first using his famous drip technique, and is part of a series done in 1948 that pushed him further into the consciousness of the art world.

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Artist: Paul Cezanne

Price: $274 million

Year Sold: 2011

The Qatari Royal Family is making news as one of the big new players in the art world, and they made the biggest splash in 2011 with a $250 million purchase of Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players.” Reports of the sale were not made public until 2012, and because the sale was private, the actual price paid is still being debated by some (with some projecting the price at upwards of $300 million). One of 5 in a series, the other versions are displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, and 2 other prestigious galleries. The record-setting painting is expected to be a corner piece of National Museum of Qatar when renovations are completed, now expected for 2016.

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