Here Are the 10 Most Expensive Works of Art Sold at Auction in 2021—and Why They Fetched the Prices They Did

Plus, who bought and sold them (when we could figure it out).

People look at Alberto Giacometti's
People look at Alberto Giacometti's "Le Nez", part of The Macklowe Collection, at Sotheby's on November 5, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

Amid all the logistical upheaval of the past year, the old adages about what creates value at the tippy-top of the art market have proven truer than ever. 

Rarity, condition, and provenance continue to be the key drivers of the market’s uppermost echelon. Sotheby’s unprecedented November auction of works from the collection of divorcées Harry and Linda Macklowe hit the mark on all three counts, providing some of the rarest (and priciest) treasures the market had seen in years. Perhaps not surprisingly, works from the trove accounted for four of the 10 most expensive lots in 2021.

The incredible amount of wealth that has been created over the course of the past two years was on full display in auction salesrooms. In 2020, just two of the top 10 lots fetched prices above $50 million each. This year, all ten of the top lots sold for well above the $50 million mark. Combined, they delivered a total of $1.2 billion. The lowest price on the list is $61.6 million.

Read on for details not only on what scored big, but why. Data on top-selling lots is provided by the Artnet Price Database.

 

10. Jackson Pollock, Number 17, 1951 (1951)

Jackson Pollock, Number 17, 1951 (1951). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Price: $61.6 million

When: November 15

Where: Sotheby’s New York

Why: The success of this painting—part of the Macklowe Collection—was something of a surprise. It comes from a group of 33 canvases known as the “Black Pourings” or “Black Paintings” unveiled in 1951, immediately after Pollock debuted the all-over multicolored compositions for which he is best known. The unprimed linen canvas smashed its $35 million high estimate and surpassed the artist’s previous record of $58.3 million, set for a more characteristic drip composition in 2013. Its provenance is unbeatable: Before the Macklowes acquired it in 1999, it was owned by the illustrious collector S.I. Newhouse, and, prior to that, part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which acquired it in 1952 from the fabled Sidney Janis Gallery.

 

9. Xu Yang, Emperor Qianlong’s Conquest of Xiyu (18th Century)

Xu Yan, <i>Emperor Qianlong’s Conquest of Xiyu (《平定西域獻俘禮圖手捲》), </i> Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Image courtesy Poly International, Beijing.

Image courtesy Poly International, Beijing.

Price: CNY 414 million ($65 million)

When: June 6

Where:  Poly International, Beijing

Why: This meticulously painted rare scroll became one of the most expensive Chinese artworks ever to sell at auction. Created by Xu Yang, who was recruited as a court painter by the Qianlong Emperor in the 1750s, the hand scroll depicts scenes in Beijing during the aftermath of military campaigns to consolidate the emperor’s power in the west of China.

The detailed artwork begins at Beijing’s Zhengyangmen Gate and passes through Tiananmen Square before ending at the entrance to the Forbidden City, where the artwork was once mounted, according to the auction house. It last changed hands publicly in 2009, when Chinese billionaire and Long Museum founder Liu Yiquan bought it for RMB 134 million ($19.7 million).

 

8. Beeple, EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS (Minted February 16, 2021)

Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days. Courtesy of the artist and Christie's.

Courtesy of the artist and Christie’s.

Price: $69.3 million

When: March 11 

Where: Christie’s New York 

Why: Christie’s had no idea what to expect when, in March, it sold a high-resolution composite of digital images that Beeple (real name: Mike Winkelmann) had created every day since May 2007 alongside the work’s NFT. In the final minutes of the two-week online sale, bidders chased Everydays—which had a starting price of $100—to a jaw-dropping $69.3 million. The buyer was the Singapore-based NFT production studio and crypto fund Metapurse, which used the purchase to promote its own token representing fractional shares of its digital art holdings (which included a number of other Beeples).

Sure, $69.3 million is a lot of money. But instantly becoming famous in the crypto-art sphere, putting NFTs at the center of the global conversation, and potentially increasing the value of the many other Beeple works in your portfolio? That’s not priceless—but it could be worth more than $69.3 million.

 

7. Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas, (1917–19)

Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas (1917-19_. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Price: $71.35 million

When: May 12

Where: Sotheby’s New York 

Why: Monet’s “Haystacks” might be his priciest and rarest series (the 1891 painting Mueles sold for a record $110.7 million in 2019), but the artist’s “Water Lilies” remain his most famous. Monet’s rich use of color makes Le Bassin aux nymphéas a standout piece. It has been shown all over the United States, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and was last seen at auction at Sotheby’s in 2004, when it fetched $16.8 million.

 

6. Vincent van Gogh, Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprès (1889)

Vincent van Gogh, Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprès (1889). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

Price: $71.35 million

When: November 11

Where: Christie’s New York

Why: For all the conversation about changing taste (and believe us, we’ve led the charge), the performance of the collection assembled by the late Texas oil magnate Edwin Lochridge Cox proved there is still ample appetite for Impressionist masterworks, provided they are high quality and by brand names. This idyllic Van Gogh from the Cox collection is now among the top five most expensive works sold by the Dutch Impressionist master ever sold at auction. Van Gogh crated the work while he was in an asylum outside of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It passed through the hands of his brother’s widow, famed Mexican art collector and dealer Marius de Zayas, and Cox, who bought it in 1982. At auction, it was snapped up by Hugo Nathan, a founding partner of the London advisory firm Beaumont Nathan. 

 

5. Alberto Giacometti, Le Nez (1947)

Alberto Giacometti, Le Nez Conceived in 1947; this version conceived in 1949 and cast in 1965. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Price: $78.4 million

When: November 15

Where: Sotheby’s New York 

Why: The sale of this essential Giacometti sculpture from the Macklowe Collection surprised many, not necessarily because of its price (it was the second most expensive work from the trove), but because of who bought it: crypto-billionaire Justin Sun. Praising it as one of Giacometti’s “most essential and far-reaching sculptures,” Sun noted in a tweet that the haunting post-World War II sculpture of a bronze head with an extremely long, pointy nose was the cover of Sotheby’s catalogue for the Macklowe sale. Another version appeared on the cover of the catalogue for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s 2018 Giacometti retrospective, “which proves the significance of this sculpture in Giacometti’s creative career and the influence of art history,” he said. Sun, who is only 31 years old and the founder of cryptocurrency platform TRON, purchased the work through his APENFT Foundation. It is now being digitally assimilated to go “on view” at the APENFT Virtual Museum on Cryptovoxels in the metaverse. Imagine trying to explain that to Giacometti.

 

4. Mark Rothko, No. 7 (1951)

Mark Rothko, No. 7 (1951). Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Price: $82.5 million

When: November 15

Where: Sotheby’s New York 

Why: Rothko’s market has deflated in recent years with few stellar examples by the Abstract Expressionist coming to auction and new money becoming more engaged with young artists and new media. But No. 7 had a lot going for it—the palette, scale, and year are all considered among the artist’s best. The work had long been a prize of Harry and Linda Macklowe and would likely never have hit the block if not for their divorce proceedings. It was bought by an Asian client of Sotheby’s for $82.5 million, just shy of the artist’s $86.9 million record that’s been in place since 2012.

 

3. Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel (circa 1480)

Sandro Botticelli, Young Man Holding a Roundel. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Price: $92.1 million

When: January 28

Where: Sotheby’s New York

Why: Botticellis don’t pop up at auction every year, which is why this exquisite and mysterious portrait was a major market event. Anonymously consigned by the real-estate billionaire Sheldon Solow shortly before his death in November 2020, the work had spent decades on loan at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Solow acquired it for about $1 million in 1982 when it was attributed to Botticelli but its authorship was not yet confirmed. The new price was the highest result for an Old Master painting since Salvator Mundi’s $450 million auction in 2017. It also reset the market for Botticelli, whose previous auction record was $10.4 million. Although the identity of the sitter is unknown, some say it might be Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, whose brother was world-famous patron Lorenzo the Magnificent. 

 

2. Jean-Michel Basquiat, In This Case (1983)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, In This Case (1983) Image courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Image courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Price: $93.1 million

When: May 11

Where: Christie’s New York

Why: 2021 was the year of Basquiat, whose name is recognized worldwide and whose works totaled $414.5 million at auction in the first 11 months of the year, second only to Pablo Picasso. In This Case was the priciest of 118 Basquiat lots to hit the block. It was sold by Giancarlo Giammetti, the Italian businessman and co-founder of the fashion house Valentino. Paintings with skull imagery are among Basquiat’s most sought-after works and this one was among three large-scale versions shown together at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2018 (the others are owned by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and Los Angeles’s Broad museum). It’s part memento mori, an icon of death; part self-portrait; and part memorable logo, harkening back to Basquiat’s origins as a street artist.  

 

1. Pablo Picasso, Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse)(1932)

Pablo Picasso, Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) (1932). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

Price: $103.4 million

When: May 13

Where: Christie’s New York

Why: Pablo Picasso did it again. The Spanish artist led auction sales in 2021 both in terms of overall volume ($657.7 million sold in the first 11 months of the year) and the most expensive lot. A perennial crowd-pleaser, Picasso’s young lover Marie-Therese was the subject of this large color-saturated canvas, painted in 1932, perhaps the most coveted year of the artist’s storied career. The result surprised auction stalwarts who hadn’t expected fireworks based on the work’s previous (plentiful) auction history. The final price almost doubled the presale estimate of $55 million.


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