Here Are the 10 Most Expensive Works Sold at Auction in 2023—and Why They Fetched the Prices They Did

Despite talk of a softening market, multiple records were set during this year.

Sotheby's Modern Evening auction in New York on November 13, 2023. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

The bar for auctions was set extremely high in 2022, especially considering that in the evening auction of the collection of the late Paul Allen, a stunning five works took $100 million… each. This time around, that lofty nine-figure mark was only surpassed once in the marquee auctions—a telling indicator of the changing landscape at the very top of the market. Prices were still healthy but collectors were notably selective amid the uncertain global economic backdrop.

Of the ten highest lots of the year, eight were sold at New York auctions, two were in London. And while Picasso was by far the highest seller with a single portrait hauling in $139.4 million, Austrian painter Gustav Klimt had two paintings land in the top lots—a seascape and a portrait that pulled in a cumulative $138.4 million.

Read on for a list of the most expensive lots of the year.

 

 

1. Pablo Picasso, Femme à la montre (1932)

Pablo Picasso’s Femme à la montre (1932) at Sotheby's. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's.

Pablo Picasso’s Femme à la montre (1932) at Sotheby’s. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s.

Estimate: $120 million

Sale Price: $139.4 million

Where & When: Sotheby’s New York, November 8, 2023

What to Know: The star lot of the year was Picasso’s painting of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, which was the crown jewel of the collection of the late Emily Fisher Landau. The artwork was hammered down at $121 million at Sotheby’s New York’s sale dedicated to the admired collector and patron, who was a longtime member of the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art and had her own private museum. She reportedly kept the Picasso on her mantle. The painting depicts Walter, known as Picasso’s “golden muse,” and was created soon after the end of the secrecy around their affair. The pair first met in 1927 outside the Galeries Lafayette in Paris when Walter was just 17 years old and Picasso, then 45, was still married to the Ukrainian dancer Olga Khokhlova, the mother of his son Paulo.

Including fees, the painting brought the house $139.4 million, which accounted for about 34 percent of the auction’s total sales value—a welcome boost for the highly anticipated sale, which was one of the most successful in an otherwise limp season.

 

2. Gustav Klimt, Dame mit fächer (Lady with a Fan) (ca. 1917–18)

Gustav Klimt, Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) (1917-18). Courtesy of Sotheby's London.

Gustav Klimt, Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) (1917-18). Courtesy of Sotheby’s London.

Estimate: In excess of £65 million ($82.4 million)

Sale Price: £85.3 million ($108.4 million)

Where & When: Sotheby’s London, June 27, 2023

What to Know: Gustav Klimt’s final portrait—it was still on the easel in the artist’s studio when he died in 1918—set a record for the most expensive work of art ever auctioned in Europe when it sold for a premium-inclusive £85.3 million  ($108.4 million) at Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Evening Sale in London in June.

The artwork carried an estimate “in excess of £65 million,” so was queued up to easily smash the record, which dated to 2010, when Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture Walking Man sold at for £65 million ($104.3 million), also at Sotheby’s London. When Klimt’s canvas was hammered at £74 million following a ten-minute bidding war, and the auctioneer declared the record broken, the sales room erupted in applause.

Dame mit Fächer is also the most expensive Klimt ever sold at auction, surpassing the $104.6 million achieved for Birch Forest at Christie’s sale of the Paul Allen collection in 2022. The last time it hit the block, in 1994, it had also set a new high-water mark for the artist, with a $11.6 million sales price at Sotheby’s New York.

 

3. Claude Monet, Le bassin aux Nymphéas (ca. 1917–19)

Claude Monet, <i>Le bassin aux nymphéas</i> (ca 1917-1919). Image courtesy Christie's.

Claude Monet, Le bassin aux nymphéas (ca 1917-1919). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Estimate: In the region of $65 million

Sale Price: $74 million

Where & When: Christie’s New York, November 9, 2023

What to Know: This imposing Monet canvas, which was the star lot of Christie’s fall season, was hung in the center of the house’s exhibition space in New York before the sale against a two-story black backdrop, where it absolutely could not be missed. The house’s 20th Century Evening Sale, the last in New York with veteran auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen at the rostrum, saw the Monet hammer for $64 million ($74 million after fees) and Pylkkänen exit the stage to a standing ovation.

 

4. Jean-Michel Basquiat, El Gran Spectaculo (The Nile) (1983)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) (1983). Estimate on request; in the region of $45 million. Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd 2023.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) (1983). Estimate on request; in the region of $45 million. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd 2023.

Estimate: In the region of $45 million

Sale Price: $67 million

Where & When: Christie’s New York, May 15, 2023

What to Know: The early Basquiat was the belle of the ball at Christie’s in May when it sold for $67.1 million including fees on a $45 million (unpublished) estimate. Painted when the artist was just 22 years old, the massive work was the object of lively bidding, including by mega-dealer Larry Gagosian, although he eventually lost out on El Gran Espactaculo, which hammered for $58 million. It now ranks as the fourth-most expensive Basquiat painting sold at auction.

 

5. Gustav Klimt, Insel im Attersee (ca. 1901–02)

Gustav Klimt, Insel im Attersee (ca. 1901–2). With an unpublished estimate, it sold for $53.2 million. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Gustav Klimt, Insel im Attersee (ca. 1901–02). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Estimate: In the region of $45 million

Sale Price: $53.2 million

Where & When: Sotheby’s New York, May 16, 2023

What to Know: This  rare and mesmerizing seascape by Klimt is a scene from where the artist took his summer vacations. Sotheby’s vice president and head of the Modern sale described the place as “where Klimt escaped his studio in Vienna… and was able to choose what he wanted to paint….” adding that the evocative work, a divergence from most of Klimt’s best-known fare, “is almost more of a poem to nature than it is an exacting landscape depiction.” It had never been offered at auction before and was backed by a third party, guaranteeing that it would sell.

 

6. Francis Bacon, Figure In Movement (1976)

Francis Bacon, Figure In Movement (1976). Image courtesy Christie's.

Francis Bacon, Figure In Movement (1976). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Estimate: In the region of $50 million

Sale Price: $52 million

Where & When: Christie’s New York, November 9, 2023

Grief is the central theme of this work by Francis Bacon, as two torqued figures wrestle against a fiery orange mat. Like all of Bacon’s work, it is deeply personal and serves as a gripping meditation on love and loss, painted as a “cathartic” response to the death of George Dyer, his lover and creative muse. The price ranks it as the eighth most expensive Bacon sold at auction.

 

7. Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow Orange Yellow) (1955)

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955). © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955). © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Estimate: In the region of $45 million

Sale Price: $46.4 million

Where & When: Christie’s New York, November 9, 2023

What to Know: The near seven-foot tall canvas was in the artist’s personal collection until he passed away in 1970. Christie’s described it as enveloping the viewer “in a dramatic golden glow.” The work boasts an impressive provenance, changing hands multiple times over the last ten years. It once belonged to legendary 20th century collectors and art patrons, Paul and Bunny Mellon and remained in their possession for half a century; dealer Helly Nahmad bought the work in 2014 at Sotheby’s, who later sold it privately to Steve Wynn, its most recent owner. 

 

8. Richard Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad (1965)

Richard Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad (1965). Image courtesy Christie's.

Richard Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad (1965). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Estimate: In the region of $25 million

Sale Price: $46.4 million

Where & When: Christie’s New York, November 9, 2023

What to Know: The auction house called the work “a groundbreaking painting” that celebrates and pays tribute to the work of Henri Matisse and reflects the profound effect the French master’s paintings had on Diebenkorn’s career. In the 1960s, Diebenkorn made a rare trip to the Soviet Union where he first saw dozens of Matisse’s paintings in person, and the ornamental design on this canvas clearly nods to the French artist’s oeuvre. 

 

9. Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II) (1910)

Wassily Kandinsky, <i>Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II) </i>(1910). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II) (1910). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Estimate: In the region of $45 million

Sale Price: £37.2 ($47.2 million)

Where & When: Sotheby’s London, March 1, 2023

What to Know: Sotheby’s described the restituted painting as a “key masterwork by Kandinsky that represents a radical turning point in art history.” That turning point was the artist’s nascent development of the abstract language that would define the rest of the his career—and help influence the Abstract Expressionist movement.

The work had been with the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, since 1951. The institution had acquired it from Karl Legat, a Jewish dealer who, along with Myrtil Frank, worked with Mühlmann Agency to process and sell artwork seized by the Nazis in the Netherlands in exchange for avoiding deportation for themselves and their families.

Its original owners were Johanna Margarete Stern and Siegbert Samuel Stern, a husband-and-wife duo who owned a thriving Berlin textile business and built a wide-ranging art collection. Siegbert died in 1935, and Johanna Margarete fled to the Netherlands to escape the Nazis.

 

10. Henri Rousseau, Les Flamants (1910)

Henri 'Le Douanier' Rousseau, <i>Les Flamants</i> (1910). © Christie’s Images Limited 2023.

Henri ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau, Les Flamants (1910). © Christie’s Images Limited 2023.

Estimate: $20 million to $30 million

Sale Price: $43.5 million

Where & When: Christie’s New York, May 11, 2023

This star lot of the sale, a French Post-Impressionist work from 1907 in the self-taught artist’s signature flat yet vivid dreamlike style, set the auction record for the artist. But that was a given, and a reflection of the scarcity of Rousseau works on the market, considering that the second-highest auction price is just a fraction of that, at $2.9 million, set in 2009.


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