The 20 Most Expensive Artworks Ever Sold at Auction (Adjusted for Inflation)

Surprises abound!

  • When a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream sold at Sotheby’s this past spring for a whopping $119.9 million, with buyer’s premium, it made headlines around the world as “the most expensive work ever sold at auction,” and while it certainly was the highest price ever paid for a work on the block, the statement needs a bit of an asterisk. Auctions, after all, are almost designed to raise eyebrows. It’s very rare that a work of art comes to the block without an auction house feeling relatively confident that a few buyers with deep pockets in the audience are already dead-set on buying it.

    All this is to say that, though the numbers may have increased, the relative price for major works sold at auction has always been impressively high. As a bit of a reality check during this week’s post-war and contemporary auctions, we’ve done some dollar-value-inflation adjustments to bring you the most expensive works of art ever sold at auction. Does inflation make that much of a difference, you ask? The Scream clocks in at #5 on our list. That Christie’s Rothko that also sold this past spring for $88 million in New York? #14. Click through our slide show for a brief history lesson in eye-popping auction records.

    Additional reporting by Jess Schiewe.

    All auction data and images courtesy Artnet.

    Update 6/29 Some errors in Artnet’s initial data collection, and also ours, forced us to make a few corrections.