“Paintings are kind of like magic,” says art’s answer to Brian Cox, Alastair Sooke as he gets ready to talk us through the ten priciest paintings in history. “Someone decorates a worthless scrap of canvas with pigment and Abracadabra! It’s priceless..” He’s right of course, but what he then goes on to explain is that there are many factors which determine just how much individual pieces can fetch at auction. Who owned the painting previously, how bankable the artist is, the cultural significance and sometimes even whether it’s actually any good or not. As such, The World’s Most Expensive Paintings is more than just a cultural countdown programme, it’s a fascinating look at art’s relationship with money and the deep-pocketed individuals who snap up famous paintings for a wide variety of reasons.
In May 1990 a Japanese paper tycoon spent $160 million buying two paintings within a few days in New York, Renoir’s ‘Au moulin de la Galette’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Dr Gachet’. The pieces – numbers eight and six on Sooke’s absorbing shortlist – haven’t been seen since. With the owner threatening to burn them as his company hit the skids in the early 90s, you have to wonder why he bought them in the first place. Similarly the presenter asks why Rothko’s* ‘White Center’ is worth so much simply because it was owned by the Rockerfeller clan. Indeed the idea that a picture which is effectively made up of three rectangles and a wobbly line should fetch $72,000,000 at auction should re-ignite countless discussions on what is and isn’t art.
Picasso fills the top three places on the list (‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ seen above comes in at number one after going for $106 million in 2010) and other famous names like Van Gogh, Renoir and Monét punctuate the top ten, but the other old masters are notable by their absence. Rubens’ ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ creeps in at number nine, but Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Donatello and Raphael are all absent because most of their works are already in the hands of the church or museums and have never been anywhere near a Christie’s auction house. Sooke uses this point to illustrate that the most expensive aren’t necessarily the best.
And who better to demonstrate the difference between money and merit than ex-con and novelist Jeffrey Archer? We are treated to a trip around his gaudy penthouse to view his own collection of paintings. “Most people don’t notice them and just admire the view..” he tells us. There’s no accounting for taste eh Jeffrey?
*Mad Men fans may recognise one of his other famous works..