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. Read more