These Artists Sold Their Work For Millions

Which artists sold their works for the most -- while they were still alive to enjoy the money? Take a look.

The words “artist” and “millionaire” don’t usually come together in the same sentence, but there are a few exceptions to that rule. When a work of art is truly great, there are some people who are willing to pay just about any price to have it in their home.

What makes a work of art truly great? That’s probably a matter of personal preference. No matter what your opinion is on these works – whether you think that sculpture is just plain silly or this painting is too simple to cost millions – there was someone out there who was willing to pay top dollar for it.

The sale might have happened in an art gallery or through an art auction, and they made the artist quite the payoff. Take a look at these artists who sold their work for the most during their lifetimes.

Jeff Koons

Artist Jeff Koons with arms outstretched in front of his colorful sculpture
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In 2019, Jeff Koons’ sculpture Rabbit, which he created in 1986, sold for $91 million. That sale made it one of the most expensive sculptures ever created.

Who is the artist? Jeff Koons was born in Pennsylvania in 1955, and his work has grown out of his time as an artist who thrived in the 1980s. He continually shocked the art world with his surprising work that featured common subjects shown in a new light. 

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Koons was an early pioneer of appropriation, which called for reproducing banal commercial images and objects with only slight modifications in scale or material. 

Koons was known for his colored sculptures and paintings that dealt with popular objects. Balloon Dog (Orange) is another sculpture by Koons that sold for a large sum of money — $58.4 million, to be precise, making it one of the top 10 most expensive artworks ever sold while the artist is still living.

Jasper Johns

Picture of famous painting Flag by Jasper Johns
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Before Jeff Koons, there was Jasper Johns, who was born in Georgia in 1930. He is associated with the Pop art movement and is primarily known for his series of American flag paintings. 

One of those paintings put Johns at the very top of the list of artworks sold while the artist was still living. Flag sold for $110 million, making it the most expensive painting by a living artist ever sold during his lifetime.

Johns originally focused on painting and texture alone. He painted using simple colors but paid close attention to texture. Starting in 1961, he began to incorporate real objects in his work, attaching them to his canvases. 

Johns’ work changed throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In the 70s he stopped using nearly as much color, and in the 80s he used more shapes in his paintings. His paintings False Start, White Flag, and Diver all sold for over $5 million during his lifetime. 

Damien Hirst

Artist Damien Hirst with friend standing in front of zebra art
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British artist Damien Hirst was born in 1965 and, like Koons before him, decided to send waves through the art world throughout his career. He did so not only through his provocative art but also through his actions. 

How’d he do it? Hirst decided to shock the art world by completely bypassing the galleries and selling his work directly through an auction in 2008. He made over $200 million in sales at this single auction. 

One of Hirst’s works, For the Love of God, made a major splash during the early 2000s. But just what made For the Love of God so special? It was one of many unusual pieces the artist produced. 

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Hirst’s later work included paintings made by spin machines, enlarged ashtrays filled with cigarette butts, monumental anatomical models of the human torso, medicine cabinets filled with pharmaceuticals, other curiosity cabinets filled with found objects, and a diamond-studded platinum-cast human skull entitled For the Love of God, probably the most expensive work of art ever made.”

That skull made the artist quite a few dollars – $100 million, in fact, making it the second most expensive work to ever be sold while the artist was living.

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David Hockney

Fans of realism will love David Hockney’s work. This artist worked as a draftsman, printmaker, photographer, and stage designer. Hockney’s painting, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Friends) is one of the most expensive works ever sold during the artist’s lifetime. 

Hockney was born in England in 1937 and studied at the Bradford College of Art as well as the Royal College of Art in London. He taught in the US before permanently moving to Los Angeles in 1978, which had a major impact on his work.

Hockney played with light throughout his work. He experimented with photography and photo collages as well. His work was recently exhibited at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

What put him on this list? Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Friends), an acrylic-on-canvas painting that’s calming, beautiful, and depicts the beauty of California, sold for $90.3 million.

Sacha Jafri

Another British artist and the youngest on this list, Sacha Jafri was born in 1977 and is now one of the most famous artists in the world. His painting, Journey of Humanity, which incorporated children’s artwork, sold for $62 million, making it one of the most expensive works of art ever sold while the artist was still living. 

Like Damien Hirst, Jafri has chosen to put his own preferences above those of the art world, and he does not typically work with galleries. He donates the proceeds from many of his works to children’s charities.  

Jafri’s work has been compared to Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock. His art has been collected by a wide range of famous figures, spanning from the British royal family to Sir Paul McCartney.

Gerhard Richter

Artist Gerhard Richter at a press conference
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The first German on this list, Gerhard Richter was born in 1932 and grew up in East Germany. He was eventually allowed to travel to the West where he was exposed to many types of art, and he ultimately moved to West Germany. 

Richter is known for not committing himself or his work to one specific school or style. So, he worked mainly in both portraiture and abstract paintings. He didn’t focus on one style or one subject matter, and instead, his work rejoices in the diversity of art.

At auctions in 2012 and 2013, his painting of Milan’s Cathedral square, Domplatz, Mailand, sold for $37.1 million, and his painting Abstraktes Bild (809-4) sold for $32.1 million. Those sales made his artwork some of the most expensive ever sold while the artist was still living. 

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Lucian Freud

Like Richter, Lucian Freud was born in Germany; but unlike the other German artist, he moved to England while he was still a child. He studied painting and was mostly interested in the human figure. 

Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping sold at auction in May 2008 for $33.6 million, making it one of the most expensive works of art ever sold while the artist was living.

Willem de Koonig

This Dutch-born artist spent most of his life in the United States, where he studied and learned from some of the greatest artists of his time. According to the Museum of Modern Art, “The female figure was an especially fertile subject for the artist. His paintings of women were among his most controversial works during his lifetime and continue to be debated today.”

In fact, de Koonig’s painting, Two Women, was so evocative that it ended up selling for an extremely high price. In May 1982, Two Women sold for $1.2 million at auction, making it one of the top twenty most expensive works of art to be sold during the artist’s lifetime.

Salvador Dali

Madame Tussaud's wax museum figure of Salvador Dali standing in front of painting
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Most people have heard of Salvador Dali and seen his melting clock painting. This phenomenal Spanish artist changed the art world forever with his beautiful and fascinating paintings. He combined different styles and joined the Surrealists to paint some of the most iconic works of all time. 

Dali’s painting, L’Enigme du Desir/Ma Mere, Ma Mere, Ma Mere is a surreal and stunning painting that you could look at for hours. It sold at auction in March 1982 for $.8 million, which is $2.19 million in today’s dollars.

Pablo Picasso

Black and white poster showing Pablo Picasso holding a small owl
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You’re probably not surprised to see this iconic Spanish painter on the list. Pablo Picasso was born in 1881 and died in 1973. He produced an extraordinary number of works in his lifetime, and he co-founded Cubism with Georges Braque.

In Picasso’s lifetime, he created many stunning works of art, including Death of Harlequin/Woman in a Garden, La Belle Hollandaise, and Mother and Child. All three of these works were sold in the 1950s and 1960s for over $1 million in today’s dollars, making them three of the most expensive works of art ever sold during the artist’s lifetime.  

Ernest Meissonier

French painter and sculptor Ernest Meissonier was born in 1815. He made an impact on the world of historical military painting. Meissonier painted fans and pious images, and then he began painting, which is what he is most famous for now.

In fact, it was his painting, Friedland, 1807, that put him on the list of artists whose work was sold during their lifetime for an expensive amount. In March 1887, Friedland, 1807 sold for over half a million dollars, which was an incredibly expensive amount in the 1880s.

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