7 Highest-Grossing Christie’s Auctions of All Time
As you’ve seen from my other blog posts, there are a wealth of places both on the web and in person where one can procure high quality art. Places like Studio6, Lumas, 1stdibs, Martin Lawrence Galleries, and others cater to the needs of virtually all collectors, offering the new, the old, originals, reproductions, valuable rarities, and budget-friendly space-fillers.
But what if you’re looking for something else—something rarer, older, or more valuable? Something that even the most prestigious galleries and dealers wouldn’t be able to get their hands on—something that arguably belongs in the collection of a famous museum?
For those collectors, the best course of action open to them is to consult the auction houses. These are professional organizations built around the acquisition, appraisal, and sale of truly rare pieces of art, obtained from the finest private collections in the world. Here, even the most particular of art collectors can usually discover the pieces they’ve been dreaming about, but for those who persist even to the rarified air of this group, at the top of the pyramid sits Christie’s.
What is Christie’s Auction House?
Christie’s is the most prestigious and highest-grossing art auction house in the world today. It’s two centuries older than the famed Heritage Auctions and China Guardian and this past year, it brought in seven times the revenue of its older sibling Sotheby’s.
Christie’s was founded in 1766 in London by James Christie who passed the enterprise onto his son upon his death. Over the next two centuries, the organization gradually expanded, acquiring the famed galleries Leger and Spink & Son, surpassing the sales of other professional auction houses, and establishing major locations in New York, Paris, Hong Kong, and Geneva.
In recent years, Christie’s has not only led the way in acquisitions and profits, but in diversity and innovation as well. Private sales have become an increasingly large part of Christie’s portfolio, to protect buyers and sellers of high-valued art items. They have also begun to expand into the property sector since purchasing North America’s largest independent realtor network. Finally, in May, 2021, Christie’s became the first top-tier auction house to sell an NFT, accepting cryptocurrency as payment by the buyer.
Christie’s has been a cornerstone of the art world for centuries, but nothing demonstrates this better than looking at the masterworks they have sold. Below are the seven highest-grossing items ever sold by Christies (with inflation-adjusted numbers in parentheses), and number one doubles as the most expensive artwork ever sold.
7. Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust, Pablo Picasso
Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust is a large portrait of Picasso’s interwar mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, painted in 1932. Originally sold to the painter’s friend and dealer Paul Rosenberg, it was moved out of France in anticipation of World War II, and displayed at one of his gallery spaces in New York until 1951. At that point, it was bought by the Brody family of art collectors and was hidden from the public eye for nearly 60 years except for a single showing on Picasso’s birthday in 1961. On the death of Frances Brody in 2009, the painting came to Christie’s who auctioned it to a private bidder for $106.5 ($126.4) million, the highest price ever paid for an artwork at the time.
6. Three Studies of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon
Three Studies is a triptych of Francis Bacon’s close friend and artist Lucian Freud. Painted at the Royal College of Art in London in 1969, the piece was subsequently split into three in the 1970s, much to the displeasure of Bacon himself. Luckily, in the 1980s, one of the original buyers obtained and recombined the three pieces, allowing it to be exhibited in its original form at the Yale Center for British Arts in 1999. After a brief exhibition in its homeland of Britain in 2013, the work came to auction at Christies, where it was purchased by Las Vegas business magnate Elaine Wynn for $142.4 ($158.2) million—at the time also the highest price paid for a work.
5. Portrait of Dr. Gachet (First Version), Vincent van Gogh
This is the first of two portraits of similar composition depicting Dr. Paul Gachet, the doctor who treated van Gogh during his extended battle with mental illness and who cared for the artist near the end of his life. Warmer, with greater detail and more visible brushwork, the first version passed through various hands before ending up in the Städtel in Germany in 1911. It was subsequently confiscated and sold by the Nazis, eventually finding its way to New York in the possession of Sigfried Kamarsky who frequently loaned it to the Met. In 1990, Kamarsky put up the painting for auction at Christie’s, where it sold for $82.5 ($163.4) million, another record-breaker. It’s current whereabouts, however, are unknown.
4. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustav Klimt
Perhaps Klimt’s most recognizable painting, the long and sad story of this work has even been converted into a major motion picture. Held hostage by the Austrian government and the Galerie Belvedere since its confiscation by the Nazis in 1941, the portrait of the wealthy Jewish-Austrian aristocrat was eventually returned to Bauer’s descendent Maria Altmann after a lengthy international legal battle. In 2006, Altmann sold it in a private sale brokered by Christie’s to Ronald Lauder, who put it on display in New York’s Neue Galerie. The price agreed upon was another record, at $135 ($173.3) million.
3. Nu couché, Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani was an Italian painter around the turn of the 20th century whose work resonated with and influenced the rising tide of Cubism in interwar Spain and France. Nu couché (reclining nude) typifies Modigliani’s unique style and can be seen as a precursor to treatments of the nude form in modern art. The piece was held in private hands since its creation in 1917 and was finally sold at Christie’s in 2015 to a Chinese collector, Liu Yiqian, for $170.4 ($186.1) million.
2. Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O), Pablo Picasso
Les Femmes d’Alger is a series of fifteen artworks by Picasso comprising a tribute to the artist Eugène Delacroix and his 1834 painting The Women of Algiers in their Apartment. The last in this series, painted in 1955, is called “Version O” and was held by Victor and Sally Ganz, who bought the entire series back in 1956. Sold at Christie’s in New York in 1997 to a Saudi Arabian collector, it was subsequently relisted in 2015 when the former Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani bought it for $179.4 ($195.8) million, a new record.
1. Salvator Mundi, Leonardo da Vinci
Aside from being the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, the Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) also has one of the most mysterious and obscure histories. Likely a commission for the French monarch Louis XII from around 1500, the painting spent most of its life trading hands within the British aristocracy, disappearing and reappearing in various collections over the centuries. Questions about its authenticity, given the host of well-known Salvator copies by da Vinci’s pupils, kept the painting out of the public eye until it came to light that this particular work could be the long sought-after original. Extensive restoration and study by a team at NYU led by Dianne Dwyer Modestini seemed to confirm this, and prices for subsequent auctions of the piece rose sharply. In 2017, it was listed at Christie’s and sold for a staggering $450.3 ($475.4) million to the Saudi Arabian government. At more than twice the price for the next highest-grossing public auction, Salvator Mundi tops the list of the most expensive artworks ever sold by Christie’s or anyone.
The fantastic price realized for the Salvator Mundi demonstrates not only the rapidly increasing value of fine art generally, but also of the authority of Christie’s in the world of elite art collecting. As well, despite the seemingly insurmountable hammer price of the Salvator, the murky vaults and backrooms of the art world are filled with unknown treasures and works thought long gone, and very soon we could see Christie’s bring forth another incomparable rarity to astound the world.