Relatively speaking, 2019 wasn’t the frothiest of auction years, especially compared with recent more robust ones, when several $50 million lots might be clustered into a single evening sale. Nevertheless, works that were rare, of high quality, and by a big star still managed to bring in hefty sums: nine of the 10 most expensive works offered at auction in 2019 cleared the $50 million trophy threshold.

Notably, all but one of the top works were sold in New York (and all by Christie’s and Sotheby’s); the 10th hit the block at Christie’s London. Classic contemporary art also continued to dominate the high end of the market this year, with eight of the highest prices achieved in postwar and contemporary sales. Seven of the 10 works were made in the 1960s; just two date to the late 19th century. Of course, this trend likely has more to do with supply than demand; Impressionist masterpieces are simply harder to come by these days.

It’s also worth noting that almost all but one of the top 10 works were paintings, and none was by a woman. The top result for a female artist was Louise Bourgeois’s Spider (1997), which sold for $32 million in May, making it the 15th most expensive work sold this year.

Without further ado, here is a rundown of the 10 priciest works sold in 2019—with details on why they sold for what they did, as well as who bought and sold them (if we could figure it out).

 

1. Claude Monet’s Meules (1891)

Claude Monet, Meules (1890). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Price: $110.7 million

When: May 14

Where: Sotheby’s New York

Why: This luminous painting of haystacks had been in the same private collection for more than three decades before it hit the block at Sotheby’s this past spring. It last sold at Christie’s in 1986 for $2.5 million—making the $110.7 million final price, reached after an eight-minute bidding war, a 4,328 percent return for the consignor. This sale also marked the first time a painting by Monet crossed the nine-figure mark at auction—and it wasn’t even for one of his most coveted series. (That distinction goes to his Japanese bridges, his paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, and the “Water Lilies.”) Sources say this work—the best example of the haystack series left in private hands—was purchased by German software billionaire Hasso Plattner. The underbidder, we hear, was hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin.

 


2. Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986)

A security guard stands next to Jeff Koons's Rabbit from the "Masterpieces From The Collection of S.I. Newhouse" sale at Christie's New York. (Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

A security guard stands next to Jeff Koons’s Rabbit from the “Masterpieces From The Collection of S.I. Newhouse” sale at Christie’s New York. (Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Price: $91 million

When: May 15

Where: Christie’s New York

Why: Among certain collecting circles, this work is considered to be the holy grail of Koons—and Christie’s gave it star treatment. The bunny’s allure was further burnished by the fact it came from the collection of the late publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse. Bidding opened at $40 million and, after a lengthy battle, it was sold for $91 million to veteran art dealer Robert Mnuchin. According to multiple sources, Mnuchin was bidding on behalf of hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen, beating out underbidder Mitchell Rales, the industrialist behind Maryland’s Glenstone museum

The price far surpassed the previous Koons record of $58.4 million and set a new record for a work by a living artist at auction, exceeding the $90.3 million paid for David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) last year. To be fair to Hockney, however, Rabbit earned the title on a technicality, since Christie’s raised its buyer’s premiums at the start of the year. The hammer prices for the two works were identical.

 

3. Robert Rauschenberg’s Buffalo II (1964)

"Robert

Price: $88.8 million

When: May 15

Where: Christie’s New York

Why: Buffalo II, sold by the estate of the late Chicago collectors Robert and Beatrice Meyer, shattered Rauschenberg’s previous auction record of $18 million by nearly a factor of five. There are a number of reasons it performed so well: it is from a particularly desirable period, the same year the artist won the Golden Lion at the 1964 Venice Biennale; it is filled with classic American iconography, from the Coca-Cola logo to JFK; and it hadn’t been on the market for 50 years. Bidding opened at $50 million before a half-dozen bidders chased the price up and the work eventually sold to a client of Christie’s director of postwar and contemporary art Sara Friedlander. Since most of Rauschenberg’s prized early works are already housed in museums or private collections, opportunities like this one were rare, and collectors knew it. While rumors circulated that Walmart heiress Alice Walton was the buyer, our sources deny it. (Walton’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.)

 

4. Paul Cézanne’s Bouilloire et fruits (1888)

Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits (1888-1890). Christie's Images Ltd.

Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits (1888–90). Christie’s Images Ltd.

Price: $59.3 million

When: May 13

Where: Christie’s New York

Why: This pristine still-life had the added luster of a top-notch provenance, having also come from S.I. Newhouse’s collection. When it hit the block, it was chased by several clients bidding with Christie’s specialists from Asia, suggesting strong demand from the region. The Cézanne has a tumultuous history: It was stolen in a notorious 1978 robbery from collector Michael Bakwin’s home in the Berkshires. The work was recovered in 1999; that same year, Newhouse bought it for $29.5 million at Sotheby’s London.

 

5. Pablo Picasso’s Femme au chien (1962)

Pablo Picasso, Femme au chien (1962). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Pablo Picasso, Femme au chien (1962). Courtesy of Sotheby’s. 

Price: $54.9 million

When: May 14

Where: Sotheby’s New York

Why: Femme au chien depicts the artist’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, and the artist’s beloved Afghan hound, Kaboul. The fact that it returned to market after a long absence—its consignor, a private Japanese collector, held it for roughly 29 years—definitely worked in its favor. Offered with no financial guarantee, it hammered at $48 million, or $54.9 million with premium. It was a particularly strong price for a painting of this period—especially since it is not, as one dealer described it, an “aggressively erotic picture,” but rather the equivalent of easy listening for Picasso. “It was bought for a combination of being a commodity and a highly salable object,” the dealer said.

 

6. Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis [Ferus Type] (1963)

Andy Warhol, Double Elvis [Ferus Type] (1963). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Andy Warhol, Double Elvis [Ferus Type] (1963). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 

Price: $53 million

When: May 15

Where: Christie’s

Why: The lofty price achieved for this work—offered, according to Bloomberg, by financier David Martinez—somewhat belies the lackluster bidding action in the salesroom. It was estimated at $50 million to $70 million, with auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen opening the action at $38 million. The work was quickly hammered down to Alex Rotter, Christie’s co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art, who we understand was bidding on behalf of the third-party guarantor.

 

7. Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964)

Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Price: $52.5 million

When: November 13

Where: Christie’s New York

Why: The wryly titled, cornflower-blue canvas depicts the word “Radio” being pulled apart by metal clamps. The final price surpassed the artists’s previous $30 million record by more than $20 million. “This consummate work by Ruscha is an early example of his revolutionary text paintings, a body of work that established him as one of the most innovative and influential painters of his generation,” Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of postwar and contemporary art, said when the consignment was announced. For years, the painting has been on his list of the “most desirable works in private hands,” he added. The work—widely considered the strongest lot of the fall season—was acquired in the early 1970s directly from the artist by the seller, collector Joan Quinn, and her late husband Jack Quinn.

 

8. Francis Bacon’s Study For A Head (1962)

Francis Bacon, Study for a Head

Francis Bacon, Study for a Head (1952). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Price: $50.4 million

When: May 16

Where: Sotheby’s New York

Why: This landmark painting, from the artist’s “Screaming Pope” series, had seen in public only once before. It was the star lot from the collection of Seattle philanthropists Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis. Sothey’s contemporary art specialist Grégoire Billault said he considered it the best of the “Screaming Pope” series, and “one of the greatest paintings we have ever offered in my 20 years at Sotheby’s.” It was snapped up on behalf of a client by the London-based dealership Eykyn Maclean.

 

9. Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1960)

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1960). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1960). Sold on behalf of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the painting went for $50 million. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Price: $50.1 million

When: May 16

Where: Sotheby’s New York

Why: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art consigned this color-block painting and secured a hefty estimate of $35 million to $50 million, as well as a guarantee. The museum announced that it planned to use the $50 million in proceeds to fill gaps in its collection, with a particular focus on work by women and artists of color. While there is extremely strong demand for great Rothkos, whose rectangles seem to float like clouds within the picture plane, “this was not a great one,” one dealer said. “Otherwise [the museum] wouldn’t have been selling it.”

 

10. David Hockney’s Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1969)

David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1969). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1969). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Price: $49.5 million (£37.7 milion)

When: March 6

Where: Christie’s London

Why: Other than David Hockney’s pool pictures, like the one that sold for $90 million last fall, his double portraits are the most sought-after part of his oeuvre. This painting—of Hockney’s close friend, legendary former Met curator Henry Geldzahler, and Geldzahler’s then-boyfriend Christopher Scott—came from the estate of luxury travel executive Barney Ebsworth. (Music exec David Geffen bought the work at auction for $1.1 million in 1992, and promised it as a gift to MoMA before selling it to Ebsworth in 1997—not the most polite move!) Christie’s wisely opted to sell the painting four months later than most of the Ebsworth collection so as not to compete directly with Hockney’s record-setting Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) (1972).

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