A comprehensive list of the most expensive paintings sold by living artists doesn’t really exist. This is because lists are usually published exclusively by auction houses, and prices for sales are often not disclosed; not to mention, the list is always changing. After all the fuss about Hockney this week, it may come as a surprise to find out that he is not actually the most expensive living artist. I think the real record has been brushed over by auction houses because it was a private sale; most record-breaking paintings from living artists are categorised as “most expensive painting by a living artist sold at auction”.
Nonetheless, here is my list of the top six most valuable paintings by artists who are still alive today…
1. Jasper Johns
Sold for $110 million (private auction)
Now, I have scoured the dark corners of the internet to bring you a summative list of the top six most expensive pieces of art by living artists today, and first place might is a surprise: it’s not Hockney. It is in fact the lesser known 88-year-old American painter, Jasper Johns.
He made his record in 2010 when Flag (1958), which is a unsurprisingly a painting of the American flag, was sold to hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for an eye-watering $110 million. Although it was a private sale, the huge amount of money paid for this work gives it first place on my list.
2. David Hockney
‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ 1972
Sold for $90.3 million
Personally, I don’t think it comes as a surprise that this painting broke records. Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is in some ways, the perfect painting. It is a visually satisfying artwork. With the colour palette of a Californian summer, and a personal narrative of the artist and his lover, it has pretty much everything.
The painting itself is a visual delight and refreshing in its purity: one is intrigued by the two male subjects, enticed by the rolling, mountainous landscape, and seduced by the crystal blue pool. The painting leaves the viewer satisfied in every way, and that is key to Hockney’s success as a contemporary artist. So, when the painting was sold to an unknown bidder for the eight-figure sum, they actually got a lot more than an expensive artwork from a living artist.
3. Jasper Johns
‘False Start’, 1959
Sold for $80 million
So, we have Johns and Hockney in top spots for having the most expensive paintings sold by living artists. But who’s next? Well, it’s Johns again. In another private sale, to another hedge fund billionaire (this time it’s Kenneth C. Griffin), Johns sold False Start for $80 million.
According to the New York Times, Griffin and his wife had a “real passion for False Start”. You’d hope so, if you were forking out $80 million for it.
4. Jeff Koons
‘Balloon Dog (Orange)’, 1955
Sold for $58.4 million
In third place we have a new comer: Jeff Koons, with his huge sculpture Balloon Dog (Orange), that achieved a price tag of $58.4 million. It is a typical Koons artwork: bold, outrageous, and appealing for all the wrong reasons.
Balloon Dog (Orange) has a magpie like appeal, which was enough for one undisclosed buyer to make this the third most expensive artwork by a living artist.
5. Gerhard Richter
‘Abstraktes Bild’, 1987
Sold for $34 million
86-year-old German artist Gerhard Richter takes fifth place on the list. His abstract painting Abstraktes Bild (1987) was sold by Sotheby’s for $34 million to an anonymous US buyer in 2015.
The artwork uses acrylic paint on canvas, which was layered up in technicolour sweeps, and then pulled away with pieces of wood to create a rainbow of abstraction. The artist also claimed the work to be one of his personal favourites which immediately upped the value.
6. Damien Hirst
‘Golden Calf’, 2008
Sold for $16.5 million
In sixth place is a household name in contemporary art – Damien Hirst. Emerging in the 1990s as the founding member of Young British Artists (which also included Tracy Emin, Jenny Saville and Marc Quinn), Hirst is known for his provocative and often controversial artworks.
Golden Calf (2008) was part of Hirst’s own collection sold through Sotheby’s; having previously shunned the traditional format of selling artwork through galleries and auctions, this came as a surprise to buyers, and became the artists’ most expensive work, selling for $16.5 million.