Ultimately, what determines how expensive a work of art is may not always be its aesthetic value, though—which is, of course, is a relatively metric—but more often its historical significance and the prestige of the artist who created the work.
Some of the most expensive artworks in the world are paintings, as humans are often struck most intensely by the visual medium. Of these, paintings by pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and especially Andy Warhol crown the tops of many lists, with some of their works selling for hundreds of millions of dollars. Andy Warhol's Eight Elvises alone sold for over 100 million dollars in 2008, and Roy Lichtenstein's Nurse sold for over 95 million in 2015. Abstract art, in particular, is highly appreciated, and the two currently highest-selling paintings of all time is Willem de Kooning's Interchange and Paul Gauguin's Nafea Faa Ipoipo, which both sold for roughly 300 million dollars in 2015.
Though many of these works technically belong to private collectors, more often than not, they are on display in museums for outsiders to visit and appreciate. Many private collectors will loan major works as an act of charity to prominent museums, though occasionally prominent museums themselves will use donations to purchase their own works. Sometimes, a major work will be unavailable for public viewing, and will simply exist in a private collection that is inaccessible to anyone except the owner. Considering the cultural value of these works, they are huge investments for the owners, and many works are kept in secure locations to avoid their theft. For example, The Scream by Edvard Munch, which has sold for almost 120 millions dollars, was subjected to theft many times during its lifespan of over a century, which led to a vast increase in security at the museum, especially after a particularly heinous theft in 2004 that led to the painting's loss for two years.
Two classic artists that have contributed many sought-after paintings and who frequently top the lists of expensive paintings are Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh. Irises, Portrait of Joseph van Roulin, and Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Van Gogh have all sold for over 100 million dollars (when adjusting for inflation), while Le Rêve by Picasso has sold for over 150 million and Garçon à la pipe has sold for over 130 million (again, adjusting for inflation). As some of the most prestigious artists of all time, their work is hugely in demand, and they may both appear a dozen or more times in lists of top 100 most expensive works. Along with Andy Warhol, Titian, Willen de Kooning, among others, Picasso and Van Gogh have produced some of the most expensive works, generating money for their sellers that far exceeded what the artists themselves earned in their lifetimes.
|$254||2011||The Card Players||Paul Cézanne|
|$159.4||2006/11/02||No. 5, 1948||Jackson Pollock|
|$156.5||2006/11/18||Woman III||Willem de Kooning|
|$152.6||2006/06/18||Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I||Gustav Klimt|
|$146.5||1990/05/15||Portrait of Dr. Gachet||Vincent van Gogh|
|$138.7||1990/05/17||Bal du Moulin de la Galette||Pierre-Auguste Renoir|
|$126.4||2004/05/04||Garçon à la pipe||Pablo Picasso|
|$119.9||2012/05/02||The Scream||Edvard Munch|
|$112.0||2010/05/04||Nude, Green Leaves and Bust||Pablo Picasso|
|$108||1989/08/01||Joseph Roulin||Vincent van Gogh|