The Top 15 Most Expensive Artworks Sold at Auction in 2020
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.
Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (649-2) (1987)
Price: $27.6 million
Gerhard Richter’s abstractions, made by pulling paint across a canvas to create smudgy effects, tend to be hits in the auction world, and this one proved no exception to that rule. In October, Richter’s 1987 painting Abstraktes Bild (649-2), from the collection of Ronald Perelman, sold for a whopping HKD 214.6 million ($27.6 million) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, minting a new record. It is now the most expensive work by a Western artist ever to sell at an Asian auction. The winning buyer was the Pola Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan.
Joan Miró, Femme au chapeau rouge (1927)
Price: $28.7 million
In June, Sotheby’s broke further with the traditional auction calendar by staging a late summer hybrid evening sale that combined Old Masters and works by emerging contemporary artists. Alongside an $18 million Rembrandt self-portrait that set a record for an artwork of its kind, the top lot in the house’s “Rembrandt to Richter” sale was another major blue-chip work from the collection of Ronald Perelman: Joan Miró’s 1927 Femme au chapeau rouge. Once owned by Alexander Calder and coming to auction for the first time since 1966, the work sold for $28.7 million after an 11-minute bidding war, hammering between its estimate of $20 million–$30 million.
Clyfford Still, PH-144 (1947-Y-NO.1) (1947)
Price: $28.7 million
In February, Sotheby’s announced that it had secured 26 works of postwar art from the collection of two renowned West Coast collectors, the late Harry “Hunk” and Mary Margaret “Moo” Anderson. One such work was Clyfford Still’s 1947-Y-No.1. Expected to fetch a price of $25 million–$35 million, the Still painting sold for $28.7 million with buyer’s fees in New York during the house’s live-streamed June evening sale. With the majority of Still’s works residing in the permanent collection of the Still Museum in Denver, few major works remain in private hands. A similar example by the artist, 1949-A-No. 1, set the artist’s record at $61.8 million at Sotheby’s in 2011.
Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d’Alger (version ‘F’) (1955)
Price: $29.2 million
In July, as part of its one-day, four-city relay “ONE” auction, Christie’s sold Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (version ‘F’), 1955, for $29.2 million, surpassing its estimate of $25 million. Picasso painted the work as part of series of 15 canvases that he completed between December 1954 and February 1955, all of them based on Eugène Delacroix’s masterwork Les femmes d’Alger. New York collectors Victor and Sally Ganz purchased the full series from Paris dealer Galerie Louise Leiris in the 1950s. Version ‘O’ had been auctioned at Christie’s New York in May 2015, selling for $179.4 million and becoming the second-most expensive work ever sold at auction at the time.
Barnett Newman, Onement V (1948)
Price: $30.9 million
Barnett Newman’s Onement V (1948) was a top lot from Christie’s $420 million global relay “ONE” 20th century art sale in July. Measuring 5 feet by 3 feet, the deep blue canvas is divided down the middle with a “zip,” a motif the artist developed in the 1940s, and is from series of six completed by the artist. This painting was just one of two works from the series still in private hands. It went to a bidder on the phone with Ana Maria Celis, head of Christie’s postwar and contemporary evening sales in New York, for $30.9 million.
Brice Marden, Complements (2004–07)
Price: $30.9 million
When collector Donald Marron died at the 2019, many wondered where his touted collection would go. Blue-chip dealers Pace, Gagosian, and Acquavella wound up undertaking the process of selling off his collection, and one work from it, an abstract painting by Brice Marden, came to Christie’s. It wound up selling for $30.9 million with premium. The result brought a new auction record for Marden, more than tripling the artist’s previous milestone of $10.9 million, which had been paid for his striped canvas Number 2 at Sotheby’s in November 2019.
Mark Rothko, Untitled (1967)
Price: $31.3 million
In October, at Christie’s 20th century art evening sale in New York, a deep maroon painting by Mark Rothko was one of the major works sold by billionaire investor Ronald Perelman, who liquidated a large portion of his collection amid plans to restructure his financial portfolio. Dating from a crucial period in Rothko’s career around the time he completed his seminal Seagram Murals, the work was last sold at auction for $1.2 million in 1998 before Perelman purchased it privately in 2002. Despite hype around the top lot, which came to sale with a third-party guarantee, the work failed to hammer at its low estimate of $30 million.
‘Stan’ (67 Million Years Old)
Price: $32 million
In October, alongside works by Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and more, Christie’s brought a monumental 67 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton named “Stan” to an Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art sale. After a 10-minute bidding period, it sold for $32 million. The price far surpassed the $8.4 million record for a T-rex skeleton set at Sotheby’s in 1997 for the sale of a dinosaur named “Sue,” which was auctioned by the same seller, the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in South Dakota.
Sanyu, Quatre Nus (1950s)
Price: $33.3 million
In July, Chinese-French master Sanyu’s painting Quatre Nus, depicting four reclining nude women, sold for HKD 258 million (US$33.3 million) at Sotheby’s modern art evening sale in Hong Kong, further cementing the artist’s reign at Asia-based auctions. Bidding for the 1950s painting began at HKD 160 million. After a 10-minute bidding battle, the work hammered at HKD 225 million, ultimately going for a final price of HKD 258 million to a buyer on the phone.
Cy Twombly, Untitled (Bolsena) (1969)
Price: $38.7 million
Among the highest-valued lots in Christie’s October New York evening sale was Cy Twombly’s 1969 Untitled (Bolsena). Paintings from the related “Bolsena” series reside in major museum collections, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, and anticipation had run high for the work in advance of the auction. Expected to sell for a price between $35 million and $50 million, the painting sold for $38.7 million, putting it closer to its low estimate. Alongside a deep-red untitled Rothko from 1967, the work came from the collection of billionaire Ronald Perelman, who purchased the painting from Gagosian in 1992 after it came up for sale at Sotheby’s in May that year from London’s Saatchi Collection.
David Hockney, Nichols Canyon (1980)
Price: $41 million
In early December, Phillips’s New York contemporary art evening sale brought in a total of $134.6 million, marking the highest total ever achieved for an evening sale in the house’s history. Among the works that made that record possible was David Hockney’s 7-by-5-foot painting Nichols Canyon (1980), which features a view of the landscape near the artist’s former California home. It had been sold from the collection of Seattle-based real-estate developer Richard Hedreen. Expected to reach a price of $35 million, the work ended up selling for a staggering $41 million, setting a record for a landscape by the British artist.
Ren Renfa, Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback (13th Century–14th Century)
Price: $41.8 million
In October in Hong Kong, a rare Chinese classical scroll made a record price at Sotheby’s. A 700-year-old painting by Chinese painter and government official Ren Renfa titled Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback sparked a 75-minute-long bidding run, with more than 100 bids in the process. It wound up hammering at HKD 265 million, and selling for HKD 306 million ($41.8 million) with buyer’s fees, far exceeding the work’s $10 million–$15 million.
Roy Lichtenstein, Nude with Joyous Painting (1994)
Price: $46.2 million
In July, Christie’s relay-style sale called “ONE” raked in $420 million, and one of the works that headlined that auction was Roy Lichtenstein’s Nude with Joyous Painting (1994). Featuring the artist’s signature surfaces pocked with Ben-Day dots, the painting features a nude female subject that was appropriated from the DC Comics series Girls’ Romance. After a drawn out bidding war between competing clients in Hong Kong and New York, the Pop art masterwork sold for $46.2 million to an Asian bidder, surpassing the work’s pre-sale estimate of $30 million.
Ten Views of Lingbi Rock (ca. 1610)
Price: $73.4 million–$78.4 million
In October, Beijing’s Poly Auction sold a rare Chinese handscroll for RMB 446 million after a fierce bidding that lasted nearly an hour. The final price after premium was more than RMB 506 million–RMB 512.9 million ($73.4 million–$78.4 million), making it the most expensive Chinese classical painting ever sold at auction and breaking the auction record for a Chinese antique. It went to an American buyer.
Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981)
Price: $84.5 million
In June, Sotheby’s sold Francis Bacon’s massive painting Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) for a hammer price of $74 million (or $84.5 million with buyers premium). The monumental work, which draws on a trilogy of Greek tragedies dating back to the 5th century B.C.E., came from the collection of Norwegian collector Hans Rasmus Astrup, who bought it in 1984; he had sold it to raise funds for his private foundation, the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo. The work is the sixth large-scale triptych by Bacon to come to auction, and the first of its kind to appear on the block since 2014. It now marks the third-highest ever price achieved for a Bacon at auction.