This year was a turbulent one, and auction houses were not exempt from facing the changes wrought by it. Because of the pandemic, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips swiftly adapted their marquee evening auctions for a new era, ushering in live-streamed hybrid mega-sales that saw a host of masterpiece-level works reach staggering prices.
Signs of success at those sales was felt early on. Sotheby’s led the pack with a major evening sale in June; a Francis Bacon triptych was among its top lots. Two weeks after, in July, Christie’s staged its relay-style auction “ONE,” which brought major works by Roy Lichtenstein, Gerhard Richter, and more to market—and saw big prizes realized for them.
While auction houses worked to mitigate any potential losses resulting from the pandemic, some top collectors struggled, too—in particular Ronald Perelman. The Revlon Inc. owner, who had ranked on ARTnews‘s Top 200 Collectors list for years, began parting ways with the bulk of his touted holdings. Works by Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Gerhard Richter, Alberto Giacometti, and more departed his collection for the auction block, where buyers exhibited interest. Together, Perelman is said to have sold off $350 million of art since the pandemic began.
Yet signs of life in the auction sphere were evident. At the end of the year, in December, Phillips staged an evening sale that raked in $134.6 million—the highest total ever for the house. Could it be a possible indication of the market returning to normal—or, at least, a new normal?
To survey the past year in the market, ARTnews brought together the top 15 most expensive lots of the year, ranked by the prices they realized on the block. (All sales numbers listed below include buyer’s premium unless listed otherwise. Worked sold privately—including two Alberto Giacometti sculptures from Perelman’s collection, one of which was offered with a minimum bid of $90 million—are not ranked on this list.) That list—which spans millennia-old dinosaurs, Chinese scrolls, contemporary masterworks, and more—follows below.