These Are the 6 Most Expensive Paintings in the World

This masterpieces sure come with a hefty price tag. But what are a few million for the pleasure to see one of these works hanging on your wall? At least that is what their buyers think.
Plus, these paintings are a good investment and can be resold for even more millions.

Here are the 6 most expensive paintings in the world.

6. Water Serpents II by Gustav Klimt. $183.8 million

Two naked women lay on the foreground. Their long golden hair envelops them sensually.
Wasserschlangen II (Water Serpents II). 80 x 145 cm (31.5 x 57 in). Owned by Princess Sheikha Al Thani. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

Water Serpents II has had its fair share of controversies.

Gustav Klimt painted the Serpents between 1903 and 1907. And it went to the art collection of Judy Steiner, who was a regular patron of the Austrian master.

Water Serpents and a Nazi controversy

When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, Judy Steiner, who was Jewish, fled the country. She sought asylum in Portugal. Meanwhile, her art collection was seized by the Nazis, who were confiscating all the Klimts they could find.

The painting ended up in the hands of Nazi propagandist and filmmaker Gustav Ucicky. And when he died in 1961, his collection went to his widow, Ursula.

In 1998, 44 nations reunited to deal with the issue of Nazi-looted art and how to restitute it. They appointed a commission, which made a list of the stolen art.

Water Serpents II was on the list along with several other pieces owned by Ursula. Her collection came under fire.

Water Serpents’ happy ending

In 2013, the two quarreling parties, Ursula Ucicky and the heirs of Judy Steiner, reached an agreement about the Serpents.

Jointly, they sold it to Princess Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani of Qatar for $183.8 million. A hefty sum that earns the Serpents the title of the sixth most expensive painting in the world.

5. Number 17A by Jackson Pollock. $200 million

Chaotic abstract painting with primary colors and white.
Number 17A. Owned by Kenneth Griffin.
Currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Jackson Pollock was at the height of his career when he painted Number 17A. It was 1948, and the artist was going through his ‘dripping period.’ It was nicknamed so because of the technique Pollock used to create his art.

At the time, the thirty-something-year-old was being called one of the greatest painters of the United States. And his works were in high demand.

Geffen and Griffin buy the painting

Number 17A ended up in David Geffen’s collection. Then, in 2015, the Geffen Foundation sold the painting to Kenneth Griffin for 200 million dollars.

Kenneth Griffin’s love for art is well known. His art collection is valued at $2.6 billion. And he serves on the board of trustees of several museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago.

And Kenneth has loaned this masterpiece to the Art Institute so it can be on public display.

4. When will you marry? by Paul Gauguin. $210 million

Outdoors. Two Tahitian women sit on the grass and look at the viewer.
Nafea Faa Ipoipo? (When will you marry?). Oil on canvas.
When will you marry? Oil on canvas.
101 x 77 cm (39.7 x 30.3 in). Owned by the Emir of Qatar. (Photo: Martin Buhler/Kunstmuseum Basel/Public domain)

Paul Gauguin may not have had success while he was alive, but his paintings have done rather well since then.

The French painter traveled to Tahiti for the first time in 1891, looking for a paradise to inspire his art.

Two years later, he was back in Paris. And he exhibited his work, including this painting, in Durand Ruel’s gallery.

The painting, baptized “When will you marry?” had a price tag of 1,500 francs, quite a sum at the time, and it did not sell.

Some years later, the piece made its way to the collection of Rudolf Staechelin. Rudolf was a Swiss who was friends with artists. He bought 20 impressionist and post-impressionist paintings during the First World War.

An offer too good to resist

The Swiss kept the paintings in his family. And after his death, in 1946, his heirs lent them to the Kunstmuseum of Basel and the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire of Geneve. The paintings had been hanging there all this time.

However, a few years back, Ruedi Staechelin, Rudolph’s grandson, received an offer too good to resist. The Emir of Qatar was willing to pay $210 million for Gauguin’s When will you marry?

The painting was sold to the Emir in 2014.

3. The Card Players by Paul Cezanne. $250 million

Two suited men with hats play cards in a bar.
The card players. Oil on canvas. 97 x 130 cm
(38.1 x 51.1 in). Owned by Princess Sheikha Al Thani. (Photo: The Yorck Project/Public domain)

Cezanne actually did five versions of The Card Players in the 1890s. Some have two players, others up to five. Many specialists consider that the series is the French painter’s best work.

Four of the paintings hang from the walls of museums such as the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. And the fifth made its way to a private collection, that of George Embiricos.

The Greek was a shipping magnate with an eye for high-quality art. When he died in 2001, his family sold many of his paintings.

The Card Players was sold in a private transaction so nobody knew for certain who had been the buyer. Insiders believed it had been the Royal Family of Qatar, and that they had paid between 250 and 300 million dollars for it.

They were right. The buyer was Princess Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, who has been buying modern and contemporary masterpieces for Qatar’s new museums.

Read next: These are the world’s richest self-made women

2. Interchange by Willem de Kooning. $300 million

Abstract painting with geometric figures and lots of primary colors, plus light beige. Heavy brushwork.
Interchange. Oil on canvas. 200.7 x 175.3 cm (79.0 x 69.0 in). Currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Dutch artist Willem de Kooning painted Interchange in 1955. That same year, he sold it to U.S. architect Edgar Kauffman Jr. for about $3,000.

When Edgar died more than thirty years later, the painting was auctioned along with the rest of his state.

Japanese firm Mountain Tortoise seized the opportunity. They bought Interchange for $20.7 million. Soon, though, they sold it to U.S. producer David Geffen, who was building an impressive collection of modern art.

In 2015, the Geffen Foundation sold Interchange for $300 million to Kenneth Griffin. Kenneth is the same collector that bought Number 17A, the painting in number 5 of this list, from David Geffen.

Kenneth lent Interchange to the Art Institute of Chicago, so it is currently on public display.

Kenneth, a hedge fund manager, is known for his support of the arts. He has donated $40 million to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), $19 million to the Art Institute of Chicago, $20 million to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, and $10 million to the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago.

1. Salvator Mundi. Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. $450 million

The most expensive painting in the world is a portrait of Christ. Christ has long golden hair, wears a blue gown, and raises his right hand in a blessing.
The restored Salvator Mundi (Savior of the world).
Oil on walnut. 45.4 x 65.6 cm (25.8 x 19.2 in). (Photo: Getty Images/Public domain)

Plenty of controversies have surrounded this sale. But unlike Klimt’s Water Serpents, they have nothing to do with who is the owner. They have to do with who made the painting.

Leonardo da Vinci finished less than 20 paintings during his lifetime. The Salvator Mundi was one of them.

He painted the Salvator in c. 1500, probably for Louis XII, king of France. In 1625, the painting was in the collection of Charles I of England. And then it disappeared from history, although many copies remained.

In 2005, an auction house in Louisiana, U.S., was selling a small painting on their website. Two art dealers thought it might have some value and bought it for $1,175.

The painting was quite damaged and went through a lengthy restoration.

The Salvator Mundi under the microscope

Since then, specialists of institutions as reputable as the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York and the National Gallery of London have analyzed the work. The consensus is that this Salvator Mundi does date to the 16th century. And that it does come from Leonardo’s workshop.

But most experts believe it is the work of one of Leonardo’s pupils, probably Boltraffio or Luini, not of Leonardo himself. The master might have helped with some parts.

Who did most of the painting matters. A finished painting by one of Leonardo’s pupils goes for $600,000 or less. While a simple drawing by Leonardo’s hand can sell for $11 million.

There are also concerns about the heavy restoration that The Salvator underwent.

The Salvator Mundi, from celebrity to secrecy

The National Gallery was sure enough of its authenticity to exhibit this Salvator along with other Leonardos in 2011.

And two years later, Russian magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev bought it for $127,5 million. In 2017, he sold it to the Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi for $450 million.

The Salvator was supposed to go on display at the Louvre of Abu Dhabi in September 2019, but the unveiling was postponed. The Louvre of Paris asked to loan the painting for an exhibition that took place in early 2020, but the owners did not respond. In October 2020, the painting’s whereabouts are still unknown.

Some believe the secrecy around the painting means that the owner, probably Prince Mohammed bin Salman, doubts its authenticity –it would not be the first copy of the Salvator thought to be the original. Then again, maybe the buyer is just enjoying his masterpiece and does not want to part with it just yet.

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2019-06-14
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