Auctions have long been full of drama: furious bidding wars, astronomical sums of money and the finality of the thud of the auctioneer’s hammer have captured the imagination of the public for years.
Assorted precious objects and family heirlooms change hands at auction regularly, but only a handful command truly astonishing prices and the attention of the world’s press.
1. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi
Smashing the existing record held for the most expensive painting, Salvator Mundi sold for a whopping $450,312,500 at Christie’s New York in 2017. There are only thought to be around 20 of Leonardo’s paintings still in existence, and their scarcity has driven up the value of those remaining significantly.
Literally translating as ‘Saviour of the World’, Salvator Mundi depicts Jesus in a Renaissance style dress, making the sign of the cross and holding a transparent orb with the other.
The painting is controversial: its attribution is still hotly contested by some art historians. For several hundred years, da Vinci’s original Salvator Mundi was thought to have been lost – serious overpainting had transformed the painting into a dark, gloomy work.
The painting’s precise location is currently unknown: it was sold to Prince Badr bin Abdullah, who probably bought it on behalf of Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
2. Marie Antoinette’s Pearl Pendant
In 2018, one of the most important collections of royal jewellery ever seen in an auction house was sold by the Italian royal house of Bourbon-Parma at Sotheby’s Geneva. Amongst these priceless pieces was a large drop-shaped freshwater pearl hanging from a diamond encrusted bow which once belonged to the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.
The piece is believed to have been smuggled out of Paris in 1791, first to Brussels and then to Vienna. Several years later, the jewels found their way into the hands of the only surviving daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who later bequeathed it to her niece, the Duchess of Parma.
Whilst the precise piece isn’t known to be in any portraits, Marie Antoinette was famous for her penchant for extravagant diamond and pearl jewellery.
3. Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester
Another of Leonardo’s works tops the record for the most expensive book ever sold at auction. The 72 page Codex Leicester sold at Christie’s New York for $30.8 million to an anonymous buyer, who it was later revealed was none other than Microsoft billionaire, Bill Gates.
Written between 1508 and 1510, the codex uses mirror writing to create a distinctive kind of code. Codex Leicester is full of his musings on a variety of subjects, as well as over 360 sketches for inventions including things like the snorkel and submarine. The name derives from the Earls of Leicester, who owned the codex since 1717: it’s also known as the Codex Hammer, after its last owner, the American industrialist Armand Hammer.
The codex remains one of the few significant manuscripts by Leonardo offered for sale on the open market since 1850, which helps explain the fact the codex sold for more than double its original estimate.
Gates decided to digitise the codex, make it freely available on the internet. He also had the pages of the codex unbound and individually mounted on glass planes. They have since been displayed in cities around the world.
4. The Flowing Hair Silver Dollar
Touted as the most expensive coin in the world, the Flowing Hair Silver Dollar holds the record for the most expensive coin at auction, changing hands for $10 million in 2013. The Flowing Hair Silver Dollar was the first coin issued by the United States Federal Government and was minted between 1794 and 1795 before being replaced by the Draped Bust dollar.
These new dollars had their silver content based on the silver content in Spanish pesos, thus tying its value to existing coinage. The coin depicts the allegorical figure of Liberty, with detailed flowing hair: on the reverse is the United States eagle, surrounded by a wreath.
Even in the 19th century, the coin was considered to be valuable – a collector’s item – and its price has only continued to rise since. The coin is 90% silver and 10% copper.
5. British Guiana One Cent Magenta Stamp
The most expensive stamp in the world, and the most expensive item in the world if you were to measure by weight, this rare stamp sold for a record $9.4 million in 2014, and is believed to be the only remaining one of its kind in existence.
Originally worth 1 cent, the stamp was issued in 1856 for use on local newspapers, while its counterparts, a 4c magenta and 4c blue were for postage. Due to a shortage, a handful of unique 1c magenta stamp designs were printed with a ship image added to them.
As such, even in its day it was an anomaly: it was sold in 1873 for 6 shillings to a local collector, who was intrigued by its absence from collectors’ catalogues. It has continued to change hands semi-regularly, for increasingly large sums of money. None of the other run of these unorthodox stamps have been located.
6. Andy Warhol’s The Shot Sage Blue Marilyn
This iconic silk-screen image of Marilyn Monroe sold for a record-breaking $195 million at a 2022 New York auction, becoming the most expensive 20th-century artwork of all time. The painting was based on one of her promotional photos for the 1953 movie Niagara. Warhol created it and other very similar works following the actress’ death in 1962. Based on reports, the buyer was the American art dealer Larry Gagosian.