King’s ransom: Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is the world’s most expensive piece of art. The painting sold for $450m at Christie’s in New York in November 2017. Picture: REUTERS
King’s ransom: Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is the world’s most expensive piece of art. The painting sold for $450m at Christie’s in New York in November 2017. Picture: REUTERS

We’re often asked what the artworks that attract top prices are and what can explain the figures that reach stratospheric heights.

The most expensive piece of art is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which sold for $450m at Christie’s in New York in November 2017. King Louis XII of France commissioned the 44cm x 66cm painting.

Next is Interchange, an abstract canvas painted by Willem de Kooning in 1955. It was sold privately in 2015 for $300m, the highest price yet paid in a private sale for an artwork. The third-highest price goes to Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players, painted in 1892, that was bought for $250m by the royal family of Qatar in a private sale in 2011.

Art existed well before money, as evidenced by prehistoric rock art. Like currency, the financial value of art is based on a collective agreement. Increasingly wealthy buyers compete for instantly recognisable artist names. The art market therefore announces one record price after the other.

With the emergence in recent years of buyers from eastern Europe, the Gulf and Asia, a spate of new records have been set. These buyers are often in search of trophies and have deep pockets to secure these. The price achieved by Salvator Mundi was reportedly due to a bidding war between the Saudi royal family and the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, who both assumed they were bidding against their archrival, the Qatari royal family. The painting was previously owned by the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev.

The quest for name-brand artists has resulted in a top-heavy art market. According to the database of fine art prices, Artnet, a mere 25 artists account for nearly half of all postwar and contemporary auction sales. For the first semester of 2017, these artists’ works accounted for $1.2bn in sales and represented 44.6% of the $2.7bn total generated by all contemporary auction sales worldwide.

The African-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat took the first spot for that period. This can be directly attributed to the $110.5m achieved for the sale of his painting Untitled at Sotheby’s in May 2017.

Regarding artist demographics for highest prices paid, this certainly does not constitute the norm. The top is usually white and male, and about 50% American for contemporary art sales.

Only two women made that list. The 89-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama was at number nine and the Canadian-born abstract painter Agnes Martin (1912-2004) at No 25.

Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein held the second and third places, respectively.

In March, the sale of Mark Bradford’s Helter Skelter, a monumental painting that raised nearly $12m at Phillips in London, marked the highest auction price achieved by a living African-American artist. Two months later, this record was broken by the sale of Past Times, a 1997 painting by Kerry James Marshall that rapper and producer Sean Combs bought for $21.1m at Sotheby’s in New York. Says Marshall: "This is probably the first instance in the history of the art world where a black person took part in a capital competition and won."

SA presents an interesting case. While the 10 most expensive artworks are yet to include pieces by black artists, paintings by Irma Stern grab the top four slots — as well as the last four! The most expensive, Arab Priest, sold for more than £3m at Bonhams in London in 2011. Two years later at Strauss & Co in Johannesburg, the sale of a large sculpture by Cape Town artist Jane Alexander, named Untitled 1985/6 and informally known as the Fourth Butcher Boy, sold for R5.45m. It broke the record for South African sculptures sold at auction — a record that remains unbroken.

In 2008, the painting The Visitor by South African-born Marlene Dumas achieved $6.3m at Sotheby’s in London. At the time, Dumas became the most expensive living female artist at auction. SA seems to be a record-breaking ground for female artists.

The American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who died in 1986, holds the record for the highest price paid for a painting by a woman. In 2014, Jimson Weed/White Flower No1 painted in 1932 sold for $44.4m at Sotheby’s.

What explains these sky-high prices? When an artwork is first sold on the primary market, price is determined by production time, material costs, the standing of the artist and the marketing skills of the dealer. On the secondary market, when an artwork changes hands, price is determined by the principle of supply and demand. Rarity becomes key and so does quality. The impressionist artist Monet died at 86 and produced 2,000 paintings in his lifetime. Van Gogh died at 37 and painted 864 works. Less prolific, Pollock died at 44 but only produced 382 artworks.

The more artworks by name-brand artists in public museums, the fewer in the market and the higher the price of those in circulation can fetch. Salvator Mundi, dubbed "the last Da Vinci", was the first painting by the artist discovered since 1909 and one of fewer than 20 paintings that are generally accepted as from the artist’s hand. This is a work of art that is exceedingly rare indeed.

Walker is a partner at Walker Scott, which offers end-to-end art management services.