Top results for portrait paintings



In Artprice’s fortnightly series of auction rankings, today’s Friday Top article looks at the most expensive portraits in auction history.

In the painting medium, the portrait is the most popular genre with Western art collectors. Capable of communicating intense empathy, a portrait allows the artist to capture the soul of his/her subject. Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious portrait of the Mona Lisa is perhaps the most famous; but all great artists have at some point or another focused on the human figure. So it is not surprising that certain portraits have been among the art market’s most emblematic and most expensive works at different points in auction history.

Top results for portrait paintings
Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Francis BACON $127,000,000 Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) 2013-11-12 Christie’s NEW YORK
2 Pablo PICASSO $93,000,000 Garçon à la pipe (1905) 2004-05-05 Sotheby’s NEW YORK
3 Pablo PICASSO $85,000,000 Dora Maar au chat (1941) 2006-05-03 Sotheby’s NEW YORK
4 Gustav KLIMT $78,500,000 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) 2006-11-08 Christie’s NEW YORK
5 Vincent VAN GOGH $75,000,000 Portrait du Docteur Gachet 1990-05-15 Christie’s NEW YORK
6 Andy WARHOL $73,000,000 Triple Elvis [Ferus Type] (1963) 2014-11-12 Christie’s NEW YORK
7 Francis BACON $72,000,000 Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984) 2014-05-13 Christie’s NEW YORK
8 Vincent VAN GOGH $65,000,000 Portrait de l’artiste sans barbe (1889) 1998-11-19 Christie’s NEW YORK
9 Francis BACON $62,043,759 Portrait of George Dyer Talking (1966) 2014-02-13 Christie’s LONDRES
10 Andy WARHOL $62,000,000 Four Marlons (1966) 2014-11-12 Christie’s NEW YORK
copyright © 2016

The world’s most expensive portrait

Somewhat surprisingly, the world’s most expensive portrait is not Pablo Picasso’s famous Garçon à la pipe that sold for $104 million in 2004 at Sotheby’s, but rather Francis Bacon’s portrait of Lucian Freud. Picasso’s Garçon à la pipe (from his ‘Pink Period’ when just twenty-four) was acquired for $30,000 in 1950 and then joined John Hay Whitney’s collection (former CEO of the International Herald Tribune). After its resale by the philanthropic Greentree Foundation in 2004, the painting remained the world’s most expensive portrait for nine years despite a substantial rise in the market values of prestige artworks over the same period. Three years ago, Picasso lost his pole position in the portrait ranking to a 1969 portrait of another great artist, Lucian Freud, by another great artist, Francis Bacon, which fetched over $142.4 million at Christie’s in New York (2013) simultaneously becoming the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction! Three Studies of Lucian Freud – whose three elements were at last reunited – is a majestic triptych (with each canvas measuring 198 x 147.5 cm) that triggered an unprecedented bidding battle: 60 phones were mobilized when the lot came up, with initial increments of $5 million, followed by $1 million, until the hammer fell at $127 million five minutes later ($142.4 million including fees). The triptych was purchased by the New York gallery Acquavella on behalf of an American buyer. Since then, Bacon has been beaten by Picasso and Modigliani in terms of the most expensive artwork ever sold, but his triptych represents the best result ever hammered for a portrait. Bacon also has two other major portraits in the Top 10: Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984), which sold for $80.8 million in 2014 and Portrait of George Dyer Talking (1966), which fetched $69.6 million the same year. Together, the 3 works make Bacon the clear leader in our Top 10 portrait ranking alongside Picasso, Warhol, Van Gogh et Klimt.


Vincent Van Gogh is the only artist in this Top 10 with results hammered thirty years ago. In retrospect, Van Gogh is the artist who elicited by far the most adrenaline at auctions during the 1980s and 90s. Recognised internationally as one of Art History’s most important figures, the only reason he is not at the head of today’s art market is that hardly any of his museum-quality works remain in circulation. His status was consecrated in March 1987 when Christie’s sold his Sunflowers for $39.9 million in a highly dynamic market environment. The art world had never seen such a high price. A few months later, Sotheby’s sold The Iris for $53.9 million to the Australian business tycoon, Allan Bond, and in 1990, the Japanese businessman Saito Ryoei paid $82.5 million for Portrait of Doctor Gachet, a work that was acquired for 300 francs in 1897 and subsequently came into the hands of Hermann Göring and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Portrait of Doctor Gachet has not reappeared since, although Ryoei Saito died 20 years ago. Maybe it will return to the market someday. If it did, it could well recover its title as the most expensive portrait in history. Its aura and legendary provenance would certainly put it in pole position for a new world record…