For those who know little about art (and even for those who know a lot), the astronomical selling prices of artwork can be mind boggling. What makes a specific work of art so valuable? In this context, what does value mean beyond an incredibly high price tag ending in more zeros than 99.999% of us will ever be able to afford? The art world remains an elusive and curious industry, often lacking any definitive explanations. With the high frequency of the “I could have done that” comment in regards to numerous paintings (which is an invalid remark, but that is a conversation for another time), many view the value and reputation of famous artworks to be absurd.
And yes, it would be absurd from a perspective that determines price purely on skill, but the art market has evolved into something greater than just evaluating a work based on its use of line, color, and composition. Rather, the art world has become all about brands. With a name like Picasso or Rothko, an artwork is immediately valuable. Take another unknown artist –someone who is not found in an art history textbook – who paints in the exact style and skill of Picasso, Rothko, etc., and the value would likely decrease by millions of dollars. While everyone has a different reason for buying art – this article does not want to generalize entire groups of people but identify overarching trends – owning famous artwork appears to be a status symbol. The art market continues to have multi-million dollar selling point that is driven up by new money, new global economies, as well as the luxury goods industry in general. Artwork of this category is sold through galleries and fairs, but the high price points are often the result of art auctions.
Art auctions are the blood sport of the art world, where art collecting becomes a fierce competition. Auctions set the tone for the rest of the art market, gaining great public attention. While art auctions and the art market are vastly complicated, and often times inexplicable, it is certain that collecting art is a serious business that is more often than not reserved for the elite.
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings
There are several consistent themes across the most expensive works of art that have been sold. Nine of out the ten works are Modern Art, and six of those were created right in the middle of the twentieth century (the exception to the Modernist trend is Pendant Portraits of a Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit by Rembrandt). Many of the works represent monumental shifts of art history, such as Kooning’s aggressive abstraction of the female, or Rothko’s simple use of color blocking, or Picasso’s adoption of cubism, or Pollock’s haphazard paint splatters. All of these artists helped to redefine what art could be, paving the way for generations of artists to come. Also, it is notable that all of these artists are male.
- Willem de Kooning, Interchange (1955): $300 million, sold September 2015
- Paul Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) (1892): ~$300 million, sold February 2015 *exact price unknown
- Paul Cézanne, The Card Players (1892/93): $259 million + *exact price unknown, ranges from 259-300 M, sold April 2011
- Jackson Pollock, Number 17A (1948): $200 million, sold September 2015
- Mark Rothko, 6 (Violet, Green, and Red) (1951): $186 million, sold August 2014
- Rembrandt, Pendant Portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit (1634): $180 million, sold August 2015
- Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger (1955): $179.4 million, sold May 2015
- Amedeo Modigliani, Nu Couché (1917/18): $170.4 million, sold November 2015
- Jackson Pollock, 5, 1948 (1948): $164.3 million, sold November 2006
- Willem de Kooning, Woman III (1953): $161.4 million, sold November 2006
With a lot of money held in few private hands, the high end of the market continues to raise in demand and value. While in certain regards, this indicates a growth of the art market and increased value placed upon the arts, the high end of the market is a misleading representation of the overall market. The middle and lower ends of the market present entirely different works of art and tend to have a different mindset towards art. Whereas the higher end of the market may emphasize fame and name recognition, the middle/lower ends may be more interested in the craft behind the art, or maybe they want to support the local arts community, or maybe because they connect with a particular work of art in a significant way. There are endless reasons for buying art that reach far beyond the social status associated with it – are you familiar with evidence-based design?