The 10 Most Expensive Artworks of 2019

Another year of major auction sales has finished, so here are the priciest artworks auctioned in 2019, from a painting by record-setting pop artist Ed Ruscha to an iconic work by the father of Impressionism.

Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art sale in May 2019. Image: Christie's
Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art sale in May 2019. Image: Christie's

The art market continues to evolve and prices at auction also soar and surprise the art world as both blue chip and upcoming stars set records. "The high end of the art market is still very focused on the blue chip names," says Pontus Silfverstolpe, co-founder of Barnebys. "About 65% of the global turnover comes from the same 50 artists."

Speaking of the big trends for 2019, Silfverstolpe continues, "[Beyond the most expensive works sold], this year has been about the interest in street art, work by female artists (of all decades), and art by African art and African-American artists, such as Kerry James Marshall and Mark Bradford, but also names like Elizabeth Catlett, Kenneth Victor Young and others. This is a trend that will continue and rise for 2020." 

Although one of the hottest trends is about equality between female and male artists in the art market, female artists are still rare at the top of the list. "The price differences between the sexes is still substantial," Silfverstolpe says. "Only 12 women are among the 100 most expensive artists at auction in 2019."

We will see what 2020 holds, but here are the 10 most expensive paintings auctioned in this year:

10. Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, David Hockney, 1969 ($49.5 million)

Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, David Hockney. 1969, oil on canvas. Image: Christie's
Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, David Hockney. 1969, oil on canvas. Image: Christie's

Henry Geldzahler was one of the most powerful arbiters of the New York art scene in the 1960s. After leaving graduate school at Harvard, the young visionary joined the Met staff at age 25 and quickly rose to the role of head curator, where he introduced modern and contemporary art to the institution's canon. In 1969, at the age of 33, Geldzahler spearheaded New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, a seminal exhibition at the Met that launched the museum’s contemporary art department.

In the double portrait, Hockney portrays Geldzahler, and his partner Christopher Scott in their New York City apartment, creating a highly balanced, symmetrical work that centers on the Met maestro. Framed by the window that opens onto New York skyscrapers, Geldzahler assumes a posture of comfortable authority on the plush pink sofa and gazes directly at the viewer. His partner, Christopher, stands off to the side, looking straight ahead as not to challenge the eye contact that Geldzahler demands.

Related: A Major David Hockney Painting Sells For Nearly $50 Million

9. Untitled, Mark Rothko, 1960 ($50 million)

Untitled, Mark Rothko. 1960, oil on canvas. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel
Untitled, Mark Rothko. 1960, oil on canvas. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel

At Sotheby's Post War and Contemporary sale in May, SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) auctioned Untitled, a Mark Rothko Color Field painting from 1960 for $50 million. The oil on canvas was a gift from Peggy Guggenheim and had been in SFMOMA's collection since 1998. The museum announced that the reason behind the sale was to "broadly diversify its collection, enhance its contemporary holdings and address art historical gaps." Neal Benzra, the Director of SFMOMA, added, "With a spirit of experimentation, diversity of thought and openness to new ways of telling stories, we are rethinking our exhibitions, collections and education programs to enhance accessibility and expand our commitment to a global perspective, while sustaining our dedication to Bay Area and California art."

Related: Why Are Museums Selling Their Masterpieces?

8. Study for Head, Francis Bacon, 1952 ($50.3 million)

Study for a Head, Francis Bacon. 1952, oil and sand on canvas. Image: Sotheby's
Study for a Head, Francis Bacon. 1952, oil and sand on canvas. Image: Sotheby's

Inspired by Diego Velázquez's 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, Francis Bacon introduced his iconic Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X in 1953. But in the year prior to this painting, he worked on smaller studies that focused especially on the bust and head. He portrayed the face distorted in suffering and despair, a reflection of the existential angst and fear of death post World War II.

Related: Francis Bacon: The Tortured Artist

7. Hurting the Word Radio #2, Ed Ruscha, 1964 ($52.4 million)

Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2. 1964, oil on canvas. Image: Christie's
Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2. 1964, oil on canvas. Image: Christie's

American pop artist Ed Ruscha set the record for the most expensive artwork sold at auction this fall with Hurting the Word Radio #2 selling for $52.4 million and displacing his previous auction record of $30.4 million. Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964) is emblematic of his pop artworks that combined commercial products, typography and satire.

Related: 5 to Know: 20th Century Auction Week

6. Double Elvis, Andy Warhol, 1963 ($53 million)

Andy Warhol, Double Elvis [Ferus Type], 1963, silkscreen ink and silver paint on linen. Image: 019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS). Elvis Presley™; Rights of Publicity and Persona Rights: ABG EPE IP, LLC. via Christie's
Andy Warhol, Double Elvis [Ferus Type], 1963, silkscreen ink and silver paint on linen. Image: 019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS). Elvis Presley™; Rights of Publicity and Persona Rights: ABG EPE IP, LLC. via Christie's

No other artist has documented and transformed the nuances of American culture through their work like Andy Warhol. The 1960s firmly established Warhol as the premier artist of the zeitgeist, who was attuned to the obsessions of American society and consumer culture, especially the fascination with celebrities and entertainers. The top male entertainer of the '60s was arguably Elvis Presley, who is portrayed in Warhol's signature silkscreen as a Western rancher in a shoot for the 1960 film Flaming Star. These Elvis works were featured in Warhol's 1963 exhibit at LA's Ferus Gallery, for which he wanted to highlight Hollywood cinema and celebrity in action.

Related: Andy Warhol, the Pope of Pop

5. Femme Au Chien, Pablo Picasso, 1962 ($54.9 million)

Femme au Chien, Pablo Picasso. 1962, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's
Femme au Chien, Pablo Picasso. 1962, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's

Femme Au Chien, painted in 1962, depicts Picasso's last muse and wife, Jacqueline Roque, with their beloved dog Kaboul. At this point, the couple had just moved from Cannes to Mougins, a forested region just north of the Riviera. Characteristic of Picasso's later works, the painting reflects his bold use of color, distorted figures and geometric shapes.

Related: Picasso: the Universal Artist

4. Bouilloire et fruits, Paul Cézanne, 1888-90 ($59 million)

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Bouilloire et fruits, 1888-1890. Oil on canvas. Image: Christie's
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Bouilloire et fruits, 1888-1890. Oil on canvas. Image: Christie's

Bouilloire et fruits was painted by Cézanne between 1888-1890, while the artist lived with his family in Provence. He was known for his still lifes, in which he paid specific attention to shapes of the fruit, ceramics and flowers, while also infusing the tableau with rich color and provincial ease. The lush, painterly strokes and spatial composition capture the artist's rarefied technique and mastery of the Post-Impressionist still life.

Related: Will This Rabbit Set A New Record for Jeff Koons?

3. Buffalo II, Robert Rauschenberg, 1962-64 ($88.8 million)

Buffalo II, Robert Rauschenberg. 1964, Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas. © 2019 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Right Society (ARS), New York via Christie's
Buffalo II, Robert Rauschenberg. 1964, Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas. © 2019 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Right Society (ARS), New York via Christie's

Robert Rauschenberg's large-scale painting Buffalo II (1964) set a new record for the artist when it sold for $88.8 million this spring. The seminal work on oil and silkscreen depicts some of the most recognizable images of the early '60s: President John F. Kennedy, space exploration, the American bald eagle and a Vietnam War-era army helicopter and combines elements of the emerging genre of Pop Art and the color blocking of abstract art. Rauschenberg debuted the work at the Venice Biennale in 1964 and won the prestigious Grand Prize for Painting for it, the first American to do so. Beatrice Mayer, the heiress to the Sara Lee baking fortune, and her husband, Robert, acquired the work in 1965, and it had been in their collection for the past five decades, until Beatrice's death in September 2018.

2. Rabbit, Jeff Koons, 1986 ($96.1 million)

Jeff Koons (b. 1955), Rabbit, 1986. Stainless steel. Image: Christie's
Jeff Koons (b. 1955), Rabbit, 1986. Stainless steel. Image: Christie's

The 3.4-foot-high Rabbit, which entered the auction room with an estimate of $50-70 million, was particularly notable because it was the very first Koons' inflatable to be cast in stainless steel, now the artist's most recognizable art form. It was also the only one in the original series of three (plus an artist's proof) that was still privately owned (the others are in public collections of The Broad in LA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the National Museum of Qatar.)

The iconic sculpture first debuted in 1986 at New York's Sonnabend Gallery and transformed the future of contemporary art. Alex Rotter, the Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie's, mused, "For me, Rabbit is the anti-David. It signaled the death of traditional sculpture and disrupted the medium in the same way that Jackson Pollock's Number 31 permanently redefined the notion of painting." With the $96.1 million sale, Koons also reclaimed the title of the most expensive living artist, dethroning David Hockney.

Related: Jeff Koons Is The Most Expensive Living Artist (Again)

1. Haystacks, Claude Monet, 1890 ($110.7 million)

Meules, Claude Monet. 1890, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's
Meules, Claude Monet. 1890, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's

Next to his famed waterlilies, Monet's bulbous Meules (in English, Haystacks) are his most recognized motif. In 1890, the artist purchased his home and gardens in Giverny and the surrounding area became his main inspiration. Haystacks, once just a background addendum, became the focus in this series and this work captures Monet's singular mastery of the sun's glow on the edges of the haystacks and streams of light through the field. His use of rich tones of reds, purples, greens and pinks infuse the painting with a sense of his love of color and passion for capturing nature's beauty. The harmony of sky, sun and countryside convey Monet's own sense of harmony at his settled life at Giverny that year. The painting was purchased in 1892 by Mrs. Potter Palmer, the wife of the wealthy Chicago industrialist, who was one of the earliest patrons and champions of Monet's art and had been owned by the Palmer family ever since. The new owner is said to be Hasso Plattner, the German software billionaire who founded the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany. The $110.7 million sale was the most expensive of 2019, showing the enduring fascination with Monet's Impressionist masterpieces.

Related: Claude Monet, the Father of Impressionism

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