From the Priciest Painting to the Richest Wine Bottle, Here Are the Most Expensive Objects Ever Sold at Auction

From Marilyn Monroe's 'Subway' dress to 'Salvator Mundi,' our list rounds up the most expensive items in each auction category.

Loic Gouzer bidding on Leonardo's Salvator Mundi from the phone bank. Photo courtesy of Christie's.

The value of art often feels like an impossible thing to measure. But the auction business has consistently shown us that everything has a price—and then, a few years later, often an even higher one. So what makes a work of art command millions, or even hundreds of millions?

We combed through the data to bring you this list of some of the most rarefied objects ever sold at public auction, arranged by the record-holder in each respective category.


Most Expensive Work of Art
Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (1500)

Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi. Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2017.

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd., 2017.

Price: $450.3 million

When: November 2017

Where: Christie’s New York

Why? Marketed as the last Leonardo painting in private hands, the work was the subject of an international marketing extravaganza (as well as bitter criticism over its heavily restored surface). In the end, the battle came down to two phone bidders who chased the work for a staggering 19 minutes. The winner is believed to have been the newly embattled Crown Prince of Saudi Arabi, Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, who is said to have donated it to the United Arab Emirates.


Most Expensive Sculpture
Alberto Giacometti’s L’homme au doigt (1947)

Alberto Giacometti's Man Pointing (1947). Image courtesy of Tate. © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017.

Alberto Giacometti, Man Pointing (1947). Image courtesy of Tate. © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017.

Price: $141.3 million

When: May 2015

Where: Christie’s New York

Why? In the past decade, prices soared for Giacometti and he is now the most expensive sculptor of all time. His signature elongated figures first garnered worldwide attention decades ago, but in recent years, the increasing openness on the part of collectors to shell out big money for sculpture pushed the artist’s market to new heights. This particular sculpture was made in what Christie’s describes as “an extraordinary outpouring of activity between midnight and 9 a.m. one night in October 1947,” when the artist was preparing for a show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery. Giacometti originally intended for the work to include a second figure, around which the man’s left arm would be placed, but he eventually abandoned that idea. The work was ultimately acquired by hedge fund mogul Steve Cohen, for $141.3 million.


Most Expensive Work by a Living Artist
David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Price: $90.3 million

When: November 2018

Where: Christie’s New York

Why? The octogenarian British artist David Hockney made headlines this month when his 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for $90.3 million, surpassing the record—previously held by Jeff Koons—for the highest price paid at auction for a living artist. Hockney’s trademark California color palette is vibrant in the work, showing a figure submerged underwater, mid-swim, while on the ground above, another male figure peers down at his companion. The 1972 work was a labor of love for the artist, who spent two weeks agonizing over it, only finishing the night before it was shipped to New York. British billionaire Joe Lewis is said to have consigned the painting to Christie’s, though the buyer remains anonymous.


Most Expensive Work by a Female Artist
Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932)

Georgia O'Keeffe, <i>Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1</i> (1932) <br>sold at Sotheby's New York, on November 20, 2014.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932)
sold at Sotheby’s New York on November 20, 2014, for $44.4 million.

Price: $44.4 million

When: November 2014

Where: Sotheby’s New York

Why? Georgia O’Keeffe’s auction record, previously just $6.2 million was obliterated with this $44.4 million sale to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. A prime example of the magnified flowers for which the artist is best known, the canvas—an unusually large work for O’Keeffe at that point in her career—was described by the auction house as “a strikingly bold and elegant representation of the artist’s mature intent and aesthetic.” The museum, founded and primarily funded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, paid way more than $10 million–15 million pre-sale estimate, and put the painting on view the following year.


Most Expensive Diamond
The CTF Pink Star

A model shows the 59.60 carat Pink Star diamond ring at Sotheby's Hong Kong. Courtesy of studioEAST/Getty Images.

A model shows the 59.6 carat Pink Star diamond ring at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Courtesy of studioEAST/Getty Images.

Price: $71.2 million

When: April 2017

Where: Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Why? The CTF Pink Star is the largest internally flawless pink diamond that the Gemological Institute of America has ever graded. The ring-mounted 59.6-carat diamond was mined in 1999 by De Beers in Africa, and measures 1.06 inch by .81 inch. It was renamed the CTF Pink Star after the Hong Kong conglomerate Chow Tai Fook Enterprises, which also has a chain of jewelry stores, bought it and changed the name in honor of the owner’s father. (Previously, the same stone was hammered down, with premium, for $83 million at Sotheby’s Geneva in November 2013, but the buyer defaulted on the sale, invalidating the record.)


Most Expensive Car
1962 Ferrari 250 GTO

Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2018. Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s.

Price: $48.4 million

When: August 2018

Where: RM Sotheby’s

Why? This past summer, former Microsoft executive and vintage car enthusiast Gregory Whitten’s sale of his little red sports car far exceeded the previous record holder by about $10 million. This 1960s Ferrari is often seen as the “holy grail” of the collector car world: only 36 were ever made, and all are still running.


Priciest Pearl
Marie Antoinette’s Pendant

A model shows a diamond pendant, supporting a natural pearl of exceptional size that belonged to Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France. Photo by Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Sotheby’s.

Price: $36 million

When: November 2018

Where: Sotheby’s Geneva

Why? This large drop-shaped pearl, which hangs from a diamond-encrusted bow, has an incredible story behind it. It was owned by the decadent Queen of France until it became clear that her throne (and her head) were going to be taken away amid the burgeoning French Revolution. The Queen sent it for safekeeping with family in Austria and it was then handed down within the Bourbon-Parma royal family until hitting the auction block some 200 years later.


Most Expensive Coin
The Flowing Hair Silver/Copper Dollar

1794 Flowing Hair Silver Dollar. Image courtesy Stacks Bowers.

1794 Flowing Hair Silver Dollar. Image courtesy of Stacks Bowers.

Price: $10 million

When: January 2013

Where: Stacks Bowers

Why: The only coin to ever sell for more than $10 million is the Flowing Hair Silver Dollar, the first ever issued by the US government. It dates to circa 1794 and is made of 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper. It was the first coin issued after the Federal Mint was founded. Before the passage of the Mint Act of 1792, a wide range of coins circulated throughout the American colonies and, later, states. Some were produced by the individual colonies and states themselves such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey, and some were produced by foreign countries. According to the catalogue entry for the Stacks Bowers sale: “Liberty’s curls show incredible definition, even at their very highest relief above Liberty’s ear, as do the eagle’s feathers which display all of the fine nuances of the die.”


Most Expensive Stamp
British Guiana One-Cent Magenta Stamp

The British Guiana One-Cent Magenta stamp at Sotheby’s New York in 2014. Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.

Price: $9.48 million

When: June 2014

Where: Sotheby’s New York

Why? Weighing just .04 grams, this tiny scrap of paper is far and away the most expensive item by weight, fetching more than $9 million when it hit the auction block. It’s original price in 1856? A penny. This deep red colored stamp is the only one of its kind, making its rarity the stuff of legends. It was passed through the hands of philatelists, including the 19th-century count Philippe la Renotiere von Ferrary, the American textile magnate Arthur Hind, and John E. du Pont of Foxcatcher fame. After du Pont’s death in prison, it was sold in 2014 for more than four times the previous stamp record at auction. The buyer of the One-Cent Magenta stamp turned out to be shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, who, upon claiming his prize, reportedly tucked it into his back pocket to avoid causing a scene. He said, “my goodness, an armored truck pulling out from Sotheby’s could give some hooligans something to think about!”


Piece of Celebrity Clothing
Marilyn Monroe’s “Subway Dress”

Marilyn Monroe posing for The Seven Year Itch in September 1954. Photo: Associated Press, Public Domain Wikimedia Commons.

Price: $5.5 million

When: June 2011

Where: Profiles in History, Beverly Hills

Why? The ivory pleated cocktail dress was designed by Hollywood costumer William Travilla for Billy Wilder’s 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. The frock is arguably one of the most iconic garments in cinematic history, forever tied to the image of Marilyn Monroe struggling to cover herself while perched atop a subway grate. The dress was previously owned by actress Debbie Reynolds and featured as a marquee item in a Hollywood memorabilia-themed auction at the California-based Profiles in History auction house.


Most Expensive Photograph
Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II (1999)

Andreas Gursky, Rhine II (1999). Courtesy of Christies.

Price: $4.34 million

When: November 2011

Where: Christie’s New York

Why? Bernd and Hilla Becher, pioneers of documentary-style fine art photography, mentored the German photographer Andreas Gursky, but he was unsatisfied with merely presenting reality. Gursky began using digital technology to manipulate the landscapes he shot, highlighting formal qualities like color and line, and evoking more philosophical themes of man’s relationship to nature and commerce. In Rhine II, Gurksy presented a “platonic” ideal of the river, eliminating the structures and people that impeded his view, creating a work that is more akin to the sublime paintings of German Romantics such as Caspar David Friedrich.


Space Artifact
Soviet Vostok 3KA-2 Space Capsule

The Soviet Vostok 3KA-2 capsule. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Price: $2.9 million

When: April 2011

Where: Sotheby’s New York

Why? The capsule orbited the earth carrying a dog named Star and a human-sized mannequin (named Ivan Ivanovich) in 1961. Its successful return to earth paved the way for the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to become the first human to venture into outer space.


Bottle of Wine
Romanée Conti (1945)

Romanée Conti 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Price: $558,000

When: October 2018

Where: Sotheby’s New York

Why? During a single wine auction this past fall, Sotheby’s twice broke the record for the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold when two rare bottles of 1945 Romanée Conti were offered from the personal cellar of connoisseur Robert Drouhin, patriarch of the family-run Maison Joseph Drouhin. One bottle sold for $558,000 while a second went for $496,000, far exceeding the previous record of $310,700, set in 2007. Not surprisingly, the entire sale of Drouhin’s cellar from Beaune, France, was 100 percent sold in a “white glove” sale that totaled $7.3 million (more than five times its estimate).


Movie Poster
The original poster for Dracula (1931)

Dracula Movie Poster, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Heritage Auctions.

Price: $525,800

When: November 2017

Where: Heritage Auctions, Texas

Why? It is one of only two known posters that still exists from the original release of the classic horror film in 1931. It featured an epic illustration of actor Bela Lugosi, who brought the vampire to worldwide cult status with his performance. Before the 2017 sale, the poster had been in a private collection since the 1950s.


Barbie Doll
Stefani Canturi Barbie

The world’s most expensive Barbie doll. Photo by Robert Gray/Getty Images.

Price: $302,000

When: October 2010

Where: Christie’s New York

Why? The 11.5-inch-tall custom doll was designed by the Australian jeweler Stefano Canturi, and wears a strapless black dress with a one-carat pink diamond necklace surrounded by three carats of white diamonds. The proceeds from the auction went to benefit breast cancer research.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.
Article topics