11 Most Expensive Old Master Artwork Auction Results In The Last 5 Years

Since 2015, some of the greatest pieces of art have changed hands for incredible prices. Read on to discover eleven Old Master artworks that set new records in auction results.

Sep 23, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
old master artwork auction
Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony (1503-1554), half-length by Lucas Cranach I, 1530s (left); with An old man at a casement by Govaert Flinck, 1646 (center); and Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, 1500 (right)

Centuries after they were created, the masterpieces of the Old Masters continue to attract the attention and admiration of a global audience. The desire to possess artwork of such quality and status, with so long and rich a legacy behind it, has led many collectors to part with millions at auction. This article reveals the most expensive auction results of Old Master art purchased in this way during the last five years. 


Who Are The Old Masters And Why Do Their Auction Results Matter?

Representing a broad category of artists, the term ‘Old Master’ has its origins in the guilds that governed the artistic industry in Europe since the urban expansion of the Middle Ages. Each profession, such as silk-workers or goldsmiths, had its own guild that regulated trade, competition, and quality; it was often compulsory to be a member of one of these guilds to practice one’s trade within a city. Recognized as Masters, members of the guilds were held to strict standards and expected to produce fine work. 

It is from this precedent that the outstanding artists who rose to prominence from the 14th to the 18th centuries have come to be known as the Old Masters. Although much of their work has been lost over the years, that which remains constitutes some of the most magnificent art ever created, not only in painting but also in sculpture, drawing, engraving, and architecture. The following eleven pieces represent the highest prices auction results of Old Master artwork in the past five years.


11. Lucas Cranach I, 1530s, Portrait Of John Frederick I, Elector Of Saxony (1503-1554)

Realized Price: USD 7,737,500

lucas cranach 1 john frederick 1
Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony (1503-1554), half-length by Lucas Cranach I, 1530s, via Christie’s

Estimate: USD 1,000,000-2,000,000
Realized Price: USD 7,737,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 19 April 2018, Lot 7
Known Seller: The heirs of Fritz Gutmann

About the Artwork

Depicting John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait represents the pinnacle of power dressing. During the Renaissance, portraits became an important medium through which the elite signaled their status, and John Frederick’s great feathered hat, sumptuous velvet robes, and prominent gold jewelry is clearly designed to show that he is a man of great importance. 

The painting is made even more exciting by its own mysterious history. It was part of a private German collection in which the Nazis took a particular interest, and was thought to have been stolen or destroyed during their time in power. Eighty years later, however, it was rediscovered in America and finally returned to its rightful owners. The same year, it was put up for sale and yielded one of the largest auction results of the 21st century, the huge sum of $7.7 million. 


10. Hugo Van Der Goes, 1440-82, The Virgin And Child With Saints Thomas, John The Baptist, Jerome And Louis

Realized Price: USD 8,983,500

virgin and child thomas john jerome louis
The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis attributed to Hugo van der Goes, 1440-82, via Christie’s

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Estimate: USD 3,000,000-5,000,000
Realized Price: USD 8,983,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 27 April 2017, Lot 8
Known Seller: Anonymous American collector

About the Artwork

There are few Renaissance altarpieces in private ownership today, with many remaining under the protection of the church or national institutions across the world. And yet, this altarpiece, recently attributed to Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes, has passed through the hands of a number of prominent and influential owners, from Horace Walpole to ‘a distinguished American private collector’ who allowed it to be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

During its lifetime, parts have been painted over and then restored several times, leaving us now with a partial image, the figures of Mary, the baby Jesus and John the Baptist depicted only as sketches. Far from being considered flaws, these striking omissions add to the dynamic and mysterious history behind the painting, which is partly responsible for its enormous value, as confirmed by its sale at Christie’s in 2017 for almost $9 million. 


9. Jan Sanders Van Hemessen, 1532, Double Portrait Of A Husband And Wife

Realized Price: USD 10,036,000

jan sanders can hemessen double portrait
Double portrait of a husband and wife, half-length, seated at a table, playing tables by Jan Sanders van Hemessen, 1532, via Christie’s 

Estimate: USD 4,000,000-6,000,000
Realized Price: USD 10,036,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 01 May 2019, Lot 7
Known Seller: American artist Frank Stella 

About the Artwork

The embodiment of Early Netherlandish paintings, Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s Double portrait of a husband and wife captures the domestic world that would come to characterize some of the finest artwork to come from this period and place. Van Hemessen skilfully combines the genres of still life, with the items arrayed on the table, portraiture, with the expressive faces of the two subjects, and allegory, with some critics reading the painting as a representation of life’s temptations. It is the details that truly bring the masterpiece to life, from the couple’s ornate clothing to the board game underway before them. 

Although the early history of the painting is unknown, it was passed down by a series of Scottish Earls before falling into the possession of American artist and collector, Frank Stella, in 1984. Stella was so taken with van Hemessen’s portrait that he had it hanging in his bedroom for over 30 years until it was sold once more at Christie’s, this time for the enormous sum of $10 million.  


8. Govaert Flinck, 1646, An Old Man At A Casement

Realized Price: USD 10,327,500

old man casement govaert flinck
An old man at a casement by Govaert Flinck, 1646, via Christie’s

Estimate: USD 2,000,000-3,000,000
Realized Price: USD 10,327,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 27 April 2017, Lot 42

About the Artwork

As the student of legendary artist Rembrandt, Govaert Flinck has always been admired as a master of the Dutch Golden Age. It still came as a shock to all, however, when his portrait of An old man at a casement more than tripled its estimated auction results, selling for over $10 million at Christie’s in 2017. 

Its value undoubtedly has much to do with its provenance, as it was once owned by Catherine the Great as part of her immense art collection which included masterpieces by Rubens, Poussin, Velazquez, Veronese, Titian and, Flinck’s teacher, Rembrandt

In itself, the painting is of great importance as it demonstrates both the enduring legacy of Rembrandt, as well as the growing influence of Rubens on Northern European art during the 17th century. The angle of the old man’s head is reminiscent of the characteristic pose seen in his teacher’s portraits, while the visceral depiction of old age has much in common with similar paintings by Rubens, such as Old Woman and Boy with Candles


7. Andrea Mantegna, 1480s, The Triumph Of Alexandria

Realized Price: USD 11,694,000

triumph of alexandria andrea mantegna
The Triumph of Alexandria by Andrea Mantegna, 1480s, via Sotheby’s

Estimate: POR
Realized Price: USD 11,694,000
Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 29 January 2020, Lot 19
Known Seller: Anonymous German collector 

About the Artwork

The Paduan artist Andrea Mantegna is best remembered for a series of nine large tempera paintings known as the Triumphs of Caesar. Created between 1484 and 1492 for the Ducal Palace in Mantua, they depict the victorious processions held by Julius Caesar in celebration of his triumph over Gaul, modern-day France and Belgium. 

The masterpieces form the most comprehensive depiction of a Roman triumph ever made, and together cover an area of over 70 meters square! Both the scale of the paintings and the epic atmosphere they evoke caught the attention of King Charles I, who acquired them in 1629. To this day, they are part of the British Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace.

A recently rediscovered drawing by Mantegna has been shown to be the only preparatory draft for the Triumphs ever found. The well-finished and highly detailed drawing, on which the canvas of The Standard Bearers and the Siege Equipment was based, sheds light on Mantegna’s working methods and offers insight into how the Old Masters of Italy achieved their notable proficiency in perspective and proportion. For all these reasons, the auction results of the preparatory sketch yielded a staggering sum of $11.6 million at the beginning of 2020. 


6. Lucas Van Leyden, 1510s, A Young Man Standing

Realized Price: GBP 11,483,750

young man standing lucas van leyden
A young man standing by Lucas van Leyden, 1510s, via Christie’s

Estimate: POR
Realized Price:
GBP 11,483,750
Venue & Date: Christie’s, London, 04 December 2018, Lot 60
Known Seller: Rugby School 

About the Artwork

One of the most important Netherlandish artists of the Renaissance, Lucas van Leyden achieved international fame with his wide range of paintings and his highly skillful engravings. In fact, his impressive reputation was largely based on his prolific output of prints, images made from a single engraved plate that could be mass-produced and therefore more widely circulated.

The drafts or drawings, that van Leyden prepared for his paintings and prints have mostly been lost, making the present example all the more exciting and valuable. The figure of the young man also demonstrates the artist’s meticulous attention to detail through the intricate folds of his cloak and masterful handling of shadow, probably produced by moistening the chalk. In fact, the drawing is considered so impressive that it held the outstanding auction results of £11.4 million in 2018.


5. John Constable, R.A., 1821-22, View On The Stour Near Dedham

Realized Price: GBP 14,082,500

john constable view on the stour
View on the Stour near Dedham, full-scale sketch by John Constable, R.A., 1821-22, via Christie’s

Estimate: POR
Realized Price:
GBP 14,082,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, London, 30 June 2016, Lot 12

About the Artwork

During the early to mid 19th century, British art experienced a shift away from Romanticism towards Realism, with the influential painter John Constable representing the beginnings of this transition. Best known for his landscapes, Constable’s rural scenes are particularly emotive because of his own personal affinity with the places depicted: his famous paintings of Dedham Vale show the area around his home, which has since come to be known as ‘Constable Country.’ 

Constable prepared for his huge canvas oil paintings with preliminary drafts, which he often incorporated into his exhibitions, suggesting that he was just as proud of these as he was of the finished product. The only one of these to remain in private hands is a full-scale sketch of the River Stour near his old haunt of Dedham. A recent x-ray of the painting sheds light on the many changes and experiments Constable made on the work, adding and removing certain elements, and playing with light and shadow. Offering unique insight into the artist’s approaches and an emotive memento of the dying Romantic movement, the sketch was purchased at Christie’s in 2016 for over £14 million.


4. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1735, Madonna Of The Rosary With Angels

Realized Price: USD 17,349,000

madonna of the rosary giovanni batista tiepolo
Madonna of the Rosary with Angels by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1735, via Sotheby’s

Estimate: POR
Realized Price:
USD 17,349,000
Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 29 January 2020, Lot 61
Known Seller: Heirs of Sir Joseph Robinson, 19th-century British diamond magnate, politician, and art collector

About the Artwork

Venetian Rococo painter, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, has been celebrated for centuries for his unique and dramatic approach to religious art. Characterized by theatrical composition, monumental scale and bold coloring, his paintings represent a new way of interpreting the legacy left by the Renaissance Masters

This is exemplified in his huge oil painting of the Madonna and child, which stands at just under two and a half meters in height and is one of the only large-scale altarpieces still in private hands. The statuesque pose of the Virgin Mary, her vivid garments, and the chiaroscuro of the surrounding putti demonstrate Tiepolo’s unrivaled skill in combining the techniques of his predecessors with a new and dramatic personal touch. Sold at Sotheby’s at the beginning of 2020 for over $17 million, this important masterpiece represents both innovation and continuity within the history of art.


3. Francesco Guardi, 1763, Venice: The Rialto Bridge With The Palazzo Dei Camerlenghi

Realized Price: GBP 26,205,000

venice the rialto bridge palazzo dei camerlenghi
Venice: the Rialto Bridge with the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi by Francesco Guardi, 1763, via Christie’s

Estimate: POR
Realized Price: GBP 26,205,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, London, 06 July 2017, Lot 25

About the Artwork

The brother-in-law of Tiepolo, Francesco Guardi was another Venetian artist known for his religious paintings, which he completed with his older brother, Gian Antonio Guardi. After his sibling’s death, however, Francesco focused on vedute, for which he soon became widely respected. Using small dotting and slight, energetic brushstrokes, Guardi’s loose style offered a new take on the genre, which had previously been characterized by a linear, architectural style. 

Guardi’s pair of views showing the Grand Canal at the Rialto are considered the peak of his early career. Painted in the mid-1860s, they depict the heart of the city, which had already been captured so often in art, but with a new, familiar, and dynamic approach. The unique mood conjured up by Guardi’s brushwork offers a fresh look at a familiar scene and has been so admired throughout the subsequent centuries that a single painting from this pair held the incredible auction results of £26 million in 2017. 


2. Sir Peter Paul Rubens, 1613-14, Lot And His Daughters

Realized Price: GBP 44,882,500

lot and his daughters peter paul rubens
Lot and His Daughters by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, 1613-14, via Christie’s

Estimate: POR
Realized Price:
GBP 44,882,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, London, 07 July 2016, Lot 12
Known Buyer: Anonymous charitable foundation

About the Artwork

Generally lauded as the greatest artist of the Northern Baroque, Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ work has never failed to attract the highest auction results. In 2016, however, his painting Lot and his Daughters smashed all of the artist’s records by selling at Christie’s London for almost £45 million. 

The painting, which had been kept closely guarded in a private collection for the previous century, depicts a scene from the story of Lot told in the Book of Genesis. Having offered up his daughters to the angry mob in Sodom, Lot then escapes the burning city with the two girls, who decide to get their revenge by becoming pregnant by their father. This twisted story had previously been depicted in art, but never in so striking a way as by Rubens. He decided to show not the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, nor the pillar of salt into which Lot’s wife was turned when she looked back at the condemned cities, but instead the unnerving moment when the daughters attempt to seduce their own father by plying him with food and wine.  

The scene is rendered with great emotional and psychological intensity in Rubens’ painting: the figures’ expressions hint at the disturbing events to follow, while the textured background adds an extra touch of drama. Rubens borrows much from the Old Masters of the Italian Renaissance, from Lot’s dirty feet, a homage to Caravaggio, to his awkward reclined pose, seen in numerous statues and sculptures from the earlier period. As well as drawing on a wide range of artistic examples, this engaging and disorientating masterpiece forces the viewer to consider the question of culpability and blame.


1. Leonardo Da Vinci, 1500, Salvator Mundi

Realized Price: USD 450,312,500

salvator mundi leonardo da vinci
Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, 1500, via Christie’s

Estimate: POR
Realized Price:
USD 450,312,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 15 November 2017, Lot 9B
Known Seller: Private European collector
Known Buyer: Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia

About the Artwork

Perhaps the most widely reported art news of the 21st century, the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for $450 million broke all records for art auction results and made for one of the most exciting saleroom bidding-wars in history

Long believed to be merely a copy of a lost da Vinci work, the painting was rediscovered as an original after restoration work started in 2006, and from 2011 to 2012 it was exhibited at London’s National Gallery. 

The portrait depicts Jesus as the ‘Saviour of the World’, or Salvator Mundi, showing Christ dressed in typical Renaissance garb, making the sign of the cross with his right hand and holding a crystal orb in his left. The painting inspired numerous variations by da Vinci’s students and followers in the early 16th century, which was one reason that it managed to go undetected as an original work for so long. 

Even after it has been authenticated and sold, the mystery of the Salvator Mundi has not yet come to an end: although ostensibly a purchase on behalf of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, the painting has never been delivered to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, where it was planned to display it. In fact, the portrait has not been seen since 2017, but it has been reported that it was sighted onboard the Crown Prince’s luxury yacht. Many critics and art enthusiasts have expressed concern over the location of the painting, fearing for the safety and preservation of the world’s most valuable piece of art. 


More On Old Masters And Auction Results

lucas cranach man with fur collar
Portrait of a Man With a Spotted fur Collar by Lucas Cranach the Elder, early 1500s, via Sotheby’s

These eleven exceptional pieces of art demonstrate the continued importance and appeal of the Old Masters in a world saturated with the new, the controversial and the experimental. The immense prices paid for these masterpieces point towards an exciting future, and go to show that even the most confident estimates can sometimes be blown out of the water by determined bidders. For more staggering auction results of the last five years, check out the 11 Most Expensive Modern Art sales. 


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.