The past few years have been extremely exciting for art collectors. With auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s consistently offering up some truly remarkable and rare pieces of art, several auctions have ended in record-breaking bidding wars around the world. In November 2017, Salvator Mundi, the last known painting created by Leonardo da Vinci, made headlines when it sold for $450.3 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. But many of the most noteworthy art sales in recent years have involved pieces of abstract art.
Prior to the sale of Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting ever sold at auction was Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) by Pablo Picasso. Les Femmes d’Alger was auctioned off by Christie’s New York in May 2015 and was purchased by Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, the former prime minister of Qatar, who paid $179.4 million, surpassing the $140 million pre-sale estimate. Even that estimate was remarkable; at the time, it was one of the highest ever pre-auction estimates for a piece of art.
On May 17, 2017, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 Untitled painting became the most expensive piece of artwork created by an American artist. When Sotheby’s auctioned off the abstract painting of a skull, it resulted in a tense 10-minute bidding war which came to an end when it was finally sold for $110.5 million. Before the sale of Basquiat’s Untitled, the most expensive piece of art by an American artist was Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), which sold for $105 million in 2013. Untitled is also currently one of the most expensive pieces of art in the entire world.
Auctions houses aren’t the only places to be getting top prices for abstract art. In 2016, Interchange by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock’s Number 17A were both privately sold by David Geffen to Kenneth Griffin for a total of $500 million. About $300 million of the purchase price was for Interchange, making it the second highest price ever paid for a single painting, while Number 17A is the fifth most expensive painting in the world. This isn’t the first time Interchange was sold for a record price. In 1989, Sotheby’s auctioned the painting and it was sold for $20.7 million, which at the time was the highest price ever paid for a piece of art created by an artist who was still living at the time.
In 2014, Mark Rothko’s No. 6 (Violet, Green, and Red) was sold to Dmitry Rybolovlev for $186 million, making it the sixth most expensive painting in the world. But the purchase ended up resulting in some legal controversy. The painting had been sold by Yves Bouvier, who had also sold several other paintings to Rybolovlev over the course of a decade. Rybolovlev claimed he had been defrauded out of hundreds of millions of dollars over the years as a result of Bouvier charging highly inflated prices for the art. Prior to the sale of the Rothko painting, Bouvier had sold Jour de Flȗte et Femme Nue by Picasso to Rybolovlev for €25 million after having purchased it for just €3.5 million one day earlier. Rybolovlev filed charges of money laundering and fraud against Bouvier and Bouvier was later arrested when he arrived to meet with Rybolovlev to discuss payments for the Rothko painting.