There are many categories of items that set legendary auction prices—fine artwork, rare manuscripts, precious gems—but they all have certain characteristics in common. They may be extraordinarily beautiful or well crafted, have historical significance or cultural resonance, but the most important factor is their rarity. When an item is unique or nearly so, its price at auction can go through the roof. Here are a few of the most expensive:
The Codex Leicester: Leonardo da Vinci was not only famous as an artist, but as a thinker whose ideas in many fields were well ahead of his time. He wrote his notebooks in a mirror cursive script, which this manuscript features. It was sold to Bill Gates in 1994 for the whopping price of $30.8 million.
“Pink Star” diamond: The largest fancy pink diamond ever graded by the Gemological Institute of America, this 59.6 carat stone sold at auction for $71.2 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong in 2017, exceeding the previous record for the most expensive diamond sold at auction.
Balloon Dog, Orange: This sculpture by Jeff Koons is one of a series whose counterparts are owned by a veritable who’s who of the elite. When this one sold for $58.4 million in the 1990s, it set the world record for a work by a living artist.
The Clark-Sickle Leaf carpet: This seventeenth-century Persian rug sold at auction for $33.7 million in 2013 to an anonymous buyer. Once the property of industrialist William Clark, the carpet was auctioned off by the Corcoran Gallery of Art to raise funds for future acquisitions.
L’Homme Qui Marche I: This 1961 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti of a walking man, which stands six feet tall, sold for $104.3 million, making it the most expensive sculpture ever auctioned.
The Scream: One of the most easily recognizable works of modern art, this version of Edvard Munch’s famous painting sold for $119.9 million. Of the four versions of the work that the artist created, this is the only one that is privately owned.
Salvator Mundi: This Leonardo da Vinci painting, once thought to have been destroyed but rediscovered in 2011, sold at auction in 2017 for a mind-blowing $450.3 million, smashing all previous records for the most expensive painting sold at auction.
Qianlong Vase: This antique Chinese porcelain vase is believed to date from the 18th century. Once belonging to Chinese royalty, it was taken from the Chinese mainland during the Second Opium War. It sold at auction for $53 million.
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