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Picasso and Klimt masterpieces: These are the most expensive paintings sold at auction in 2023

 Jean-Michel Basquiat's 'El Gran Espectaculo' or 'The Nile'
Jean-Michel Basquiat's 'El Gran Espectaculo' or 'The Nile' Copyright Credit: Christie's
Copyright Credit: Christie's
By Theo Farrant
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Only two artworks fetched prices exceeding $100 million (€91.1 million) in 2023, in contrast to the six works that achieved this milestone in the previous year.

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While the global arts market increased from $441 billion (€402 billion) in 2022 to $579.5 (€528.6) billion in 2023, auction activity was more restrained in 2023. 

The combined value of the top 100 lots at auctions in 2023 totalled $2.4 billion, reflecting a notable decrease from the $4.1 billion recorded in 2022.

Notably, only three of the top 50 most expensive sales at auction in 2023 were works by female artists - Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Joan Mitchell - marking a significant shift from the absence of female artists in the top 50 rankings the previous year.

Now without further ado, let's delve into the top five most expensive paintings sold at auction in 2023: 

5) Gustav Klimt, Insel im Attersee (Island in the Attersee) - $53.2 million (€48.3 million)

Gustav Klimt's 1902 oil painting "Insel Im Attersee" is displayed at Sotheby's, Thursday May 11, 2023, in New York.
Gustav Klimt's 1902 oil painting "Insel Im Attersee" is displayed at Sotheby's, Thursday May 11, 2023, in New York.Bebeto Matthews/AP

Insel im Attersee (Island in the Attersee) (circa 1901) by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt achieved a huge sale of $53.2 million (€48.3 million) at a Sotheby’s auction in New York, making it the fifth most expensive painting of the year.  

The artwork, which is not the only Klimt painting to feature on this list, is part of his collection characterised by the distinctive square format.

Created at Lake Attersee in Austria, this particular piece is one of two paintings by Klimt depicting the same vantage point. The companion piece, Attersee (1900), is housed in the Leopold Museum in Vienna.

4) Jean-Michel Basquiat, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) - $67.1 million (€61 million)

El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile), a masterpiece by Jean-Michel Basquiat
El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile), a masterpiece by Jean-Michel BasquiatCredit: Christie's

In May, Basquiat's 1983 triptych painting, El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile), fetched a staggering $67.1 million (€61 million) at a Christie’s auction in New York. 

The Neo-Expressionist artwork, sourced from the personal collection of fashion icon Valentino Garavani, features floating skulls and figures intertwined with phrases inspired by ancient mythological texts. 

This sale marks the fourth-highest price achieved for Basquiat's work at auction, with the leading record still held by Untitled (1982), which sold for $110.5 million (€100.7 million) at Sotheby’s.

3) Claude Monet, Le bassin aux nymphéas (Water lily pond) - $74 million (€67. 2 million)

Claude Monet's "Le Bassin aux nymphéas" is displayed during a media preview for Sotheby's May evening auctions in New York.
Claude Monet's "Le Bassin aux nymphéas" is displayed during a media preview for Sotheby's May evening auctions in New York.Mary Altaffer/AP

Surpassing its anticipated valuation of $65 million (€59.1 million), Monet's Le bassin aux nymphéas (1919) painting achieved a remarkable sale price of $74 million (€67. 2 million) at Christie's Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in New York in November, 2023.

Held privately within the same family collection for over 50 years, this "undiscovered" artwork now stands as the sixth-most expensive piece by the French Impressionist artist ever sold at auction.

The current record is held by Meules (1890), which fetched $110.7 million (€100.8 million)at Sotheby's in 2019.

2) Gustav Klimt, Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) - $106.7 million (€97 million)

Gustav Klimt's 'Dame mit Faecher' (Lady with a Fan) is displayed at Sotheby's auction rooms in London.
Gustav Klimt's 'Dame mit Faecher' (Lady with a Fan) is displayed at Sotheby's auction rooms in London.Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The final work by Klimt, Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) painted in 1918, fetched $106,756,354 (€97,079,424) at a Sotheby's auction in London.

This surpassed the previous highest bid for a Klimt artwork, which was $104 million (€95 million) for "Birch Forest" (1903) at Christie's in November 2022.

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Described as a "beautiful, rich and alluring portrait of an unnamed woman", the portrait was found on his easel in his studio when he died unexpectedly in February 1918 aged 55.

Helena Newman, from Sotheby's, said it was painted during Klimt's artistic prime when he was producing some of his most famous and experimental works.

"Many of those works, certainly the portraits for which he is best known, were commissions," said Newman, who is in charge of Sotheby's Europe and global head of Impressionist and Modern Art.

"This, though, is something completely different - a technical tour de force, full of boundary-pushing experimentation, as well as a heartfelt ode to absolute beauty."

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1) Pablo Picasso, Femme à la montre (Woman with a watch)- $139.3 million (€126.7 million)

The painting "Femme a la montre" by French artist Pablo Picasso in 1932, is on display during a media preview of Sotheby's auction, in London.
The painting "Femme a la montre" by French artist Pablo Picasso in 1932, is on display during a media preview of Sotheby's auction, in London.Kin Cheung/AP

In November 2023, Femme à la montre (1932) sold for $139,363,500 (€126,730,895) at a Sotheby's auction in New York and is the second most expensive painting ever sold by legendary Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.

Femme à la montre was at the centre of a scandal in Picasso's life.

The painting is a portrait of the artist's lover Marie-Thérèse Walter seated in a throne-like chair against a blue background and the titular wristwatch is a motif also seen in artwork Picasso made of his wife, Russian-Ukrainian ballerina Olga Khokhlova.

Walter was 17 years old when she met the 45-year-old Picasso in Paris, and the two later entered into a secret relationship while he was still married to Khokhlova. Walter became his subject for a number of artworks, including the 1932 painting Femme nue couchée, (Nude reclining woman) which sold for $67.5 million (€63.2 million) at auction in 2022.

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Picasso painted Femme à la montre at a pivotal year in his career. At 50 years old, he had already achieved widespread fame by 1932 but ramped up his ambitions to silence critics who questioned "whether he was an artist of the past rather than the future," according to the Tate Modern museum.

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