If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked about what justifies the price of a painting, I would be writing this blog from a private mega yacht anchored in Saint Tropez. Such a simple question that triggers very complex answers and even more questions. What causes a painting to be worth $30 and another $100 Million? Does art even sell nowadays?

Rumors claim that Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. Others claim that he sold over 21, but also gave paintings in exchange for food and board which, if true, is not a good sign about his financial situation. If that were the case, it would mean that the painter struggled while alive and little did he know that his paintings will eventually be auctioned at millions of dollars decades after his death. Other rumors claim that he was having a decent financial situation, nevertheless, the history is full of artists who have not been appreciated while alive, but whose creations have gained popularity only after they passed away.

Salvator Mundi, Leonardo Da Vinci

Salvator Mundi, Leonardo Da Vinci

Art does sell, but not all art, not everyone’s art and not everywhere. Art is, in fact, a multi-billion dollars industry and perhaps 20% of the world painters make 80% of the earnings. Until recently it was predominantly the work of the old masters or not so old, but still deceased well known painters (such as Picasso), that would sell for insanely high prices. To date, the most expensive painting ever sold is Salvator Mundi, by Leonardo Davinci, worth approximately half a billion USD. Other artists whose work sold for hundreds of millions are Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Jackson Pollock, Rembrandt and others. A few criteria that matter in such auctions are: the painter (a painter is, ultimately, a brand), the estimated future value (i.e. how much will that painting be worth in 5,10, 20.. years), the relevance (a painting that is really representative for an artist will be worth more than a painting of the same artist, but which is not as iconic -for example, some of Monet’s paintings have been sold at only a few thousands of dollars, such as The Sunrise or some of his sketches, while his “Haystacks” broke the record of the most expensive impressionist painting ever sold, exceeding $110 million) (Warren, 2019). Another factor that can boost a painting’s price is the uniqueness or shock-factor (see pop art).

Luckily the painter does not necessarily have to be dead, in order for his or her artworks to be worth millions (even though it does help). Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog was sold for almost $60 Million. (Chichanowicz, 2016). Sacha Jaffri sold his artwork, which also happened to be the largest painting in the world, for $62 million at an auction in Dubai (CNN, 2021). Christopher Wool’s work was also sold for over $26 Million, Jasper Johns’ “Flag” was auctioned for $100 million, Damien Hirst’s wealth is estimated to exceed $380 Million and the list goes on. It is also interesting to know that many of the “most expensive” artists do not hold a degree in arts.

Jeff Koons and his artwork

Jeff Koons and his artwork

On the completely opposite spectrum you have artists painting in parks or in front of touristic attractions and sell their creation for peanuts. I have witnessed at least 6 exhibitions in Dubai during the past few months where not even one painting was sold, many of which were truly beautiful. What differentiates the artists selling for millions from those not selling at all or selling for peanuts? In certain cases it may be talent, but in my humble opinion that is not always the case. I find many of the expensive artworks sold an insult to the term “art” and I personally know great artists who are not selling much (yet). Naturally, in many cases the absence of sales or fame is due to poor talent or simply due to banality. Some artists have studied art and do have the skills but lack the imagination or that je-ne-sais-quoi. Their portraits may be accurate, their landscapes may be correct, but there is nothing special about their work. One can find millions of other similar paintings. There is no message, no space for reflection and more often than not, these artworks are borderline (or straight up) kitsch. Other than the actual artworks though, what really makes the difference is the artist’s network. Being connected to reputable galleries, knowing influential people that can open doors can bring a brilliant painting, lost in a corner in the artist’s workshop, to Christie’s auction podium. Reaching there is a matter of luck or hustle or both and not many artists have the aggressiveness it requires to keep on knocking on doors and fighting their way up.

There is also a dark truth lurking in the art sales scene, namely money laundering. Art sales has surpassed $64 billion in 2019, 44% of which occurred in the US (Egan, 2020). What makes this industry so prone to money laundering is linked to a couple of reasons. First of all, art prices are very very subjective. A work of art may be sold at a few thousands today, millions tomorrow and hundreds of millions after tomorrow. There is absolutely no way to properly justify or question the price, which renders most relevant financial investigations mute. Second of all, the identity of the buyers and sellers is most often kept a secret. So you will have an unknown owner of a painting selling it for millions to an unknown buyer. Then this buyer can very easily have that painting stored in a ultrasafe freeport, keep it there for years and years or sell it whenever he or she pleases for the tenfold amount to another secret buyer. While auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s have certain regulations in place, there is only this much that can be done. After these works of art are purchased, more often than not, they are kept in freeports for years (so not susceptible to taxes). Geneva Freeport, for instance, is the safe and secret home of thousands of artworks and antiquities (including works of Rembrandt, Picasso and others) worth billions of dollars. Nobody knows exactly how many (and what) artworks are to be found there, nobody knows the owners. “The Economist estimated in 2013 that the Geneva freeport might hold $100 billion worth of U.S. art, sitting tucked away in a space that also functions as a tax haven” (Pogacar, 2022). Other significant freeports are in Luxembourg and Singapore. Secrecy is just as high as the value of the artworks kept there in utmost safety. Using artwork as a money laundering cover or as mean to avoid taxes is not a new practice though. It is said that when they died, Picasso and his wife, Jacqueline, left behind over 2000 paintings, over 7000 drawings and 1200 sculpture. Jacqueline’s daughter, Catherine, is supposed to have donated some of the artworks as a payment in lieu, in order to avoid paying inheritance duties.

Jasper Johns’ “Flag”

Jasper Johns’ “Flag”

It is a known story that a US convicted Brazilian money laundered and former banker, Edemar Cid Ferreira tried to smuggle a painting appraised at $8 million in the US, presenting fake invoices at customs claiming that the artwork’s value is worth $100 (the painting in question was “Hannibal”, by Jean-Michel Basquiat). There are also rumours claiming that ISIS smuggle antiquities to fund their military actions. It is presumed that any antiquities discovered on archaeological sites in Iraq or other territories under their influence are secretly sold at astonishing prices. Obviously, none of these rumours can actually be proven (Pogacar, 2022).

Financial fraud and billionaires aside, the question remains whether “regular” people buy or value artwork. In a world where the majority value conspicuous displays of wealth, how many people would buy a painting rather than a Louis Vuitton bag? How many people actually care about what decorates their walls or are satisfied with just some cheap prints from Ikea? I know, unfortunately, far too many people who would rather pay thousands on a Gucci leash for their dog than on a painting. I ask myself if this is just a “Dubai syndrome”, since I live in a city where people not only value uber-luxury, but they value being seen displaying that brand as conspicuously as possible. Keeping in mind that car plate numbers are being auctioned here for $ millions (since so many people can own a Rolls Royce or Bentley, the only way to signal your status to the outer world is then having unique plate numbers – a piece of metal worth maybe $10 auctioned at millions) because plate numbers are, once again, something very noticeable, how many would spend money on something truly valuable, but that nobody can see in public. This attitude is seen everywhere around the world, but I find it at an absolute peak over here. Another aspect that differentiates just any buyer from an art buyer is their appreciation of art. How many people still value arts nowadays? How many would rather go to a museum than the cinema? How many people listen to Verdi or Satriani versus how many listen to Rihanna? This reminds me of someone I met in high school and whose invitation to go out on a date I declined simply because he thought Wagner played for Bayern Munich.


Cichanowicz, L. (2016). 10 Most Expensive Contemporary Artists. [online] Culture Trip. Available at: https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/new-york-city/articles/the-10-most-expensive-contemporary-artists/.

CNN, O.H. (n.d.). World’s largest canvas painting fetches $62M at Dubai charity auction. [online] CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/sacha-jafri-largest-painting-sold/index.html [Accessed 14 Jul. 2022].

Egan, M. (2020). The art world has a money laundering problem. [online] CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/29/business/art-money-laundering-sanctions-senate/index.html

Pogacar, C. (2022). How Money Laundering Works In The Art World. [online] Available at: https://www.artandobject.com/news/how-money-laundering-works-art-world

Warren, K (2019). A famous Monet painting just sold to a mysterious buyer for a record $110.7 million — more than 44 times what the seller paid for it. [online] Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/monet-painting-record-breaking-sold-sothebys-auction-2019-5 [Accessed 14 Jul. 2022].

Categories: Art and Luxury



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