11 Most Expensive Auction Results in Modern Art in the Last 5 Years

From 2015 to 2020, some of the greatest pieces of Modern Art were offered by the world’s largest auction houses and sold at mind-boggling prices. Read on to discover mo

Aug 23, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
christies modern art auction
Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) by Pablo Picasso, 1955, via Christie’s (left); with Rabbit by Jeff Koons, 1986, via Christie’s (center); and Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by David Hockney, 1972, via Christie’s (right)

All markets fluctuate and the art trade is no exception, but over the last five years, some of the most important, famous, and expensive pieces of Modern Art have been sold at auction for monumental prices. This article covers the top eleven auction results since 2015, exploring each masterpiece and revealing how it became so valuable. 


What is Modern Art?

Modern Art is a complex and multi-faceted category, encompassing a huge variety of styles, from Cubism to Expressionism, Surrealism to Dadaism

Scholars and art historians may argue over the minutiae of the genre, but Modern Art is widely agreed to refer to art created from the mid-late 19th century, when the effects of the industrial revolution began to be felt more profoundly, through much of the 20th century, with a blurred line between Modern and Contemporary artists. 

Each of the top ten examined here were created during the 20th century, and some of the artists are still alive today.


11. Nymphéas en fleur (Water Lilies) by Claude Monet, 1914

Realized Price: USD 84,687,500

Nymphéas en fleur by Claude Monet, 1914, via Christie’s

Estimate: Unknown
Realized Price: USD 84,687,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 08 May 2018, lot 10
Known Seller: Estate of Peggy and David Rockefeller

About the Artwork

Claude Monet may not be the first painter to spring to mind when you think of Modern Art, but his seminal work in Impressionism (he even gave the movement its name!) makes Monet one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. The Parisian painter is best known for his magnificent Water Lilies, a series of 250 oil paintings depicting the flowers that grew around his home at Giverny

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The Water Lilies provide an especially intimate look into Monet’s life and works as he kept them in his studio, selling only one, and leaving them to his family after he died; it was not for several decades that the canvases began to appear in galleries across Europe, where they were appreciated for the daring color, shadowy depths and sense of movement that characterizes the series. 


Auction of Monet’s Water Lilies at Christie’s, New York, 2018, via Architectural Digest, full video here

Not only hauntingly beautiful but also incredibly important to the history of art, Monet’s Water Lilies routinely fetch huge sums, at auction and in private sales alike. In fact, one of the larger canvases, simply entitled Nymphéas en fleur, was bought in 2018 for over $84 million at Christie’s in 2018.


10. Suprematist Composition by Kazimir Malevich, 1916

Realized Price: USD 85,812,500

Suprematist Composition by Kazimir Malevich, 1916, via Christie’s 

Estimate: Unknown
Realized Price: USD 85,812,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 15 May 2018, lot 12A
Known Seller: Nahmad Family
Known Buyer: British art dealer Brett Gorvy

About the Artwork

Russo-Polish artist, Kazimir Malevich, shocked the world in 1915 with an exhibition of daring abstract paintings, their bold colors and geometric forms unlike anything yet seen in the world of Modern Art. These pieces represented the birth of the Suprematist movement, which Malevich defined as ‘the primacy of pure feeling in creative art.’ 

The greatest masterpiece from these early years is his Suprematist Composition, which brings together movement and stillness, the formal and the sporadic, busy colors, and striking blank spaces. Malevich certainly considered it his crowning glory, including the painting in almost all his future exhibitions. 


Auction of Malevich’s Suprematist Composition at Christie’s, New York, 2018, via Christie’s

Passing through the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Suprematist Composition eventually returned into the hands of Malevich’s descendants in 2008. They sold it almost immediately to the legendary Nahmad family, by whom it was listed at Christie’s a decade later. Purchased for an incredible $85 million by British art dealer, Brett Gorvy, the painting holds the record for the most expensive piece of Russian art ever sold. 


9. Buffalo II by Robert Rauschenberg, 1964 

Realized Price: USD 88,805,000

Buffalo II by Robert Rauschenberg, 1964, via Christie’s 

Estimate: USD 50,000,000-70,000,000
Realized Price: USD 88,805,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 15 May 2019, lot 5B

About the Artwork

During the early 1950s, Texas-born artist Robert Rauschenberg traveled across Europe and North Africa, experiencing a wide range of cultures and experimenting with different art forms. In Morocco, for instance, he created collages out of piles of discarded trash, before taking them back to Italy where many were exhibited and sold at the country’s most important galleries. 

Such formative experiments came to fruition a decade later in the form of his influential silkscreen pieces. Combining images from contemporary culture, natural figures, and brushstrokes, these masterpieces introduced a new way of capturing and conveying the chaos of modern life. 


Auction of Rauschenberg’s Buffalo II at Christie’s, New York, 2019

Rauschenberg’s most famous, and certainly most expensive, piece of art is Buffalo II, which he first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1964. The huge canvas stands over eight feet in height and displays a plethora of ostensibly disparate images, including a hollow cuboid, a rising sun, and a large photograph of John F. Kennedy. Not only does Buffalo II capture the zeitgeist of the American 60s, but it also bridges the gap between two artistic movements: Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

For this reason, it is considered of great artistic value and was purchased for the monumental sum of $88 million at Christie’s in 2019. It is rumored that the winning bid came from Walmart-heiress and patron of the arts, Alice Walton. 


8. Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by David Hockney, 1972 

Realized Price: USD 90,312,500

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by David Hockney, 1972, via Christie’s

Estimate: Unknown
Realized Price: USD 90,321,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 15 November 2018, lot 9C
Known Seller: British businessman, Joe Lewis

About the Artwork

A recurrent theme in David Hockney‘s paintings from the 1960s and 1970s is the swimming pool, which represents the thrilling turn his life took after moving from his native England to sunny California. 

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is perhaps his most recognizable work from this period, and yet it is not set in the States, but in Southern France, and does not show Hockney himself, but another artist: Peter Schlesinger, his former lover and muse. The simplified yet vividly evocative style that characterizes Hockney’s paintings is exemplified in this painting, which shuns the world of politics and global movements for an intimate retrospective look at one’s own experiences and relationships. 


Auction of Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) at Christie’s New York, 2018, via The Conversation

It has certainly touched the hearts (not to mention the wallets!) of the world’s most notable art dealers and collectors, including James Astor, David Geffen and Joe Lewis, who owned the painting at various points in its history. In 2018, Portrait of an Artist set the auction record for a painting by a living artist, selling for a staggering $90.3 million at Christie’s. Once again, the buyer was anonymous.


7. Rabbit by Jeff Koons, 1986

Realized Price: USD 91,075,000

Rabbit by Jeff Koons, 1986, via Christie’s 

Estimate: USD 50,000,000-70,000,000
Realized Price: USD 91,075,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 15 May 2019, lot 15B
Known Seller: Estate of Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr.
Known Buyer: Robert Mnuchin for Steven A. Cohen

About the Artwork

An icon of 20th-century art, Jeff Koons‘ 3ft tall metal rabbit sculpture blurs the boundary between work and play. Although its balloon-like contours and animalistic form naturally evoke memories of childhood, the cool steel is ultimately solid and unyielding. It has even been suggested by the artist himself that the carrot held in the bunny’s hand conveys a subtle, sexual dimension to the artwork. 


Auction of Koons’ Rabbit at Christie’s, New York, 2019, via Business Wire, full video here

There were actually three casts of Rabbit made in 1986, one of which won the title of most expensive piece of art by a living artist, when it was sold at Christie’s in 2019 for the staggering sum of $91 million.


6. Chop Suey by Edward Hopper, 1929

Realized Price: USD 91,875,000

Chop Suey by Edward Hopper, 1929, via Christie’s

Estimate: USD 70,000,000-100,000,000
Realized Price: USD 91,875,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 13 November 2018, lot 12B
Known Seller: Estate of Barney A. Ebsworth

About the Artwork

Earlier in the 20th century, American painter Edward Hopper offered a new take on Realism, focusing on quiet moments and avoiding the bold hyper-detailed style of many of his contemporaries. With his broad brushstrokes, muted pallet and use of light and shadow, Hopper created images that were more like memories or dreams, than immediate views of photographs. 

Chop Suey is often considered his greatest accomplishment, not least because of the sensual imagery that complements the painting’s visual impact. The woman speaking in the background, the teapot and cigarette smoke, the sign outside the window: all of these contribute towards the powerfully evocative mood of the piece. There has also been great debate about who the figures in the painting represent. Is the woman in the foreground facing her doppelgänger? Are the couple in the background supposed to be Hopper and his wife? 


Auction of Hopper’s Chop Suey at Christie’s, New York, 2018, via Medium

These questions have undoubtedly contributed to the widespread interest that Chop Suey attracted immediately after it was revealed, and which continues to draw admirers today. In fact, the painting set a record as Hopper’s most expensive work, when it was sold at Christie’s in 2018 for just under $92 million.


5. Untitled by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982

Realized Price: USD 110,487,500 

Untitled by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982, via Christie’s

Estimate: Unknown
Realized Price: USD 110,487,500
Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 18 May 2017, lot 24
Known Seller: Spiegel Family
Known Buyer: Japanese art collector, Yusaku Maezawa

About the Artwork

As a boy, Jean-Michel Basquiat spent months in the hospital recovering from a car accident, and to keep him occupied, his mother brought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. This medical book would go on to influence her son in his future career as an artist; he referred to it constantly when depicting human anatomy, from various bones to skulls. 

The head is one of the most recognizable images that appears again and again in Basquiat’s oeuvre, often bridging the gap between life and death. This is exemplified by Untitled, in which vibrant colors and wild brushstrokes contrast against the sunken, subdued image of the skull. Inspired by the most respected professional textbook, but painted in the style of an urban graffiti artist, nothing better represents Basquiat’s novel approach to art. 


Auction of Basquiat’s Untitled at Christie’s, New York, 2017, via Financial Times

In 2018, Untitled was presented as the sole piece in a Basquiat exhibition, the success of which demonstrates the allure of both artist and artwork. As if more proof were needed, the painting sold at Sotheby’s two months later for an unbelievable $110 million. 


4. Fillette à la corbeille fleurie by Pablo Picasso, 1905

Realized Price: USD 115,000,000

Fillette à la corbeille fleurie by Pablo Picasso, 1905, via Christie’s

Estimate: Unknown
Realized Price: USD 115,000,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 08 May 2018, lot 15
Known Seller: Estate of Peggy and David Rockefeller

About the Artwork

The young girl in the images is completely naked apart from hair ribbons and a fine necklace and holds a basket of flowers. Her nudity, cold stare, and awkward position call the reader to question what she is really selling. Whether flower-seller or prostitute, the figure brings together the ostensibly opposing forces of innocence and immorality, forcing the reader to question their own assumptions and standards.


Auction of Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie at Christie’s, New York, 2018, via The Star, full video here

Fillette à la corbeille fleurie was painted at a key turning point in the life of Pablo Picasso, as he transitioned from an impoverished bohemian to a renowned and well-respected artist over the course of just two years. Although it falls into the work created during his Rose Period, the painting is far more cool and somber than much of his contemporary output. The haunting feeling conjured up by the image entranced the Stein siblings, who purchased Fillette from the Parisian gallery to which the artist had sold it for only 75 francs! 113 years later, it was sold once more, this time for the higher price of $115 million!


3. Nu couché (Sur le côté gauche) by Amedeo Modigliani, 1917

Realized Price: USD 157,159,000 

Nu couché (Sur le côté gauche) by Amedeo Modigliani, 1917, via Sotheby’s

Estimate: Unknown
Realized Price: USD 157,159,000
Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 14 May 2018, lot 18

About the Artwork

In 1917, Amedeo Modigliani was offered 15 francs a day to paint a series of nudes, five of which he handed over to his models, who lay draped in fabric, reclined on beds or rested on chairs for hours on end, while the artist created some of the finest nudes ever made. 

Gone are the allegorical and physical veils with which naked women were semi-disguised in the art of the previous centuries. Instead, Modigliani depicts women languishing unashamedly in their nudity, undoubtedly inspired by his Italian heritage and the Renaissance artwork he was exposed to during his youth in Rome, Florence, and Venice. 

Nu couché (Sur le côté gauche) is particularly remarkable due to its size – at almost one and a half meters wide, it is the largest painting ever created by Modigliani – and its enduring lucidity. The pose and stare of the reclining figure are at once inviting and forbidding, creating allure and elusiveness in equal measure. Just over 100 years after the masterpiece was made, it was sold at Sotheby’s for $157 million, demonstrating the timeless nature of attraction, intrigue, and beauty.


2. Nu couché by Amedeo Modigliani, 1917-18

Realized Price: USD 170,405,000

Nu couché by Amedeo Modigliani, 1917-18, via Christie’s

Estimate: Unknown
Realized Price: USD 170,405,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 9 November 2015, lot 8A
Known Buyer: Chinese art collector, Liu Yiqian 

About the Artwork

So important are Modigliani’s nudes to the history of art, that they take both second and third place for the most expensive pieces of Modern Art bought at auction in the last five years. Another reclining nude from 1917, Nu couché is among the artist’s most widely acclaimed paintings. It is a far more direct and explicit take on the nude genre, and once again demonstrates the glory and sexuality of the human form. 


Auction of Modigliani’s Nu couché at Christie’s, New York, 2015, via CNN, full video here

Like the former piece, Nu couché was exhibited at Modigliani’s first (and last!) show, which was shut down by the police because the artist had dared to depict female body hair. Over the course of the subsequent century, the stigma of Modigliani’s nudes transformed into a great respect for his ingenuity and artistry. With this appreciation has come great financial value: Nu couché sold at Christie’s in 2015 for a huge $170 million. As well as the masterpiece itself, buyer Liu Yiqian also received $1.7 million in rewards, having put the transaction through his American Express credit card!


1. Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) by Pablo Picasso, 1955

Realized Price: USD 179,365,000

Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) by Pablo Picasso, 1955, via Christie’s

Estimate: Unknown
Realized Price: USD 179,365,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 11 May 2015, lot 8A
Known Seller: Libby Howie for anonymous Saudi Arabian collector
Known Buyer: Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, member of the Qatari Royal Family

About the Artwork

The top spot for Modern Art recent auction records is taken by the 20th century’s most iconic artist, Pablo Picasso. Inspired by Eugene Delacroix‘s 1834 painting The Women of Algiers in their Apartment, his Les Femmes d’Alger comprises 15 paintings labeled ‘A’ through to ‘O’ and completed from 1954 to 1955. Although each different version is highly prized, and many are held in highly prominent collections, both public and private, Version O is by far the most famous. 

The painting embodies Picasso’s Cubism at its finest, breaking down the shapes and spaces of Delacroix’s work and employing striking colors to heighten the effect of the new, geometric approach. It was one of five versions retained by Victor and Sally Ganz, influential art collectors and the first owners of Les Femmes d’Alger, and sold at auction in their estate sale of 1997, where it was purchased for $31.9 million. 


Auction of Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) at Christie’s, New York, 2015, via Christie’s

Less than 20 years later, it appeared at Christie’s a second time, where it achieved a record price for any painting sold at auction, reaching almost $180 million. The buyer was the former Qatari Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, whose rapidly increasing art collection was crowned by this incredible masterpiece. 


Modern Art Auctions in Summary

These eleven masterpieces are not only the most expensive Modern Art auction sales of the last five years, but also represent some of the most important and influential artists of the past and previous century. Their work offers invaluable insight into how the visual arts have developed, with creators innovating on the example of their predecessors, as well as using their platforms to express social, political, and artistic opinions.

Author Image

By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.