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The top 5 most expensive paintings ever sold

Picture this: Nine-figure fine art

Dave and Les Jacobs | Getty Images

Think you paid a lot for that $59.99 print of "Dogs Playing Poker"? How does $186 million for a half-century-old oil painting of three bands of violet, red and green sound? With wealthy investors plowing record amounts of cash into fine-art acquisitions — almost $57 billion worldwide in 2014 alone, according to the Netherlands' TEFAF Art Market Report — CNBC looks at the sky's-the-limit prices some famous artworks are commanding on world markets. Here are the top five most expensive painting sales of all time.

By CNBC's Kenneth Kiesnoski
Posted 1 October 2015

5. Jackson Pollock, "No. 5, 1948"—$140 million

Jackson Pollock No. 5, 1948.
Source: Wikipedia

The 2006 sale by record mogul David Geffen of this Abstract Expressionist work by American painter Jackson Pollock for $140 million made it the most expensive painting ever sold to date, according to a report in The New York Times from Nov. 2 of that year. There has been speculation that the unnamed buyer, whose private purchase was brokered by auction house Sotheby's, was Mexican-born financier David Martinez, founder and managing partner of Fintech Advisory.

However, Martinez's representatives deny that he owns the work, which was painted in — as its name indicates — 1948. The Times described the work as a "densely tangled composition in browns and yellows ... unusually large ... measuring about 4 by 8 feet [and] painted on fiberboard."

4. Pablo Picasso, "Les Femmes d’Alger"—$179.3 million

mployees of Christie's auction house hold up Spanish painter Pablo Picassos Les femmes dAlger (Version O) during a press preview in London on April 10, 2015.
Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images

The last in a series of 15 paintings of the same name by renowned Spanish cubist artist Pablo Picasso, Version "O" of "Les Femmes d'Alger" sold at auction in May of this year for $179.3 million, according to the BBC — a record for an auction house sale. The new owner? The top bidder at the Christie's New York sale was Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, former prime minister of Qatar.

The vibrant oil painting was completed by Picasso in 1955 and depicts several nude courtesans. It still holds the record as the fourth-most-expensive painting ever sold and is now housed in Al Thani's private collection in Qatari capital Doha.

3. Mark Rothko, "No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red)"—$186 million

Mark Rothko, No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red).

This seemingly simple 1951 painting by noted abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko was acquired in a private sale by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev in August of last year for a reported 140 million euros (about $186 million at 2014 exchange rates).

The work by Rothko, himself born in Russian-ruled Latvia in 1903, was the second-most-expensive painting ever sold at the time Rybolovlev acquired it; it's since dropped to third place. The sale made headlines not only for its bank-breaking price tag: Its new billionaire owner sued Swiss art broker and Singapore resident Yves Bouvier for fraud, claiming the latter inflated prices on nearly 40 works he sold to Rybolovlev.

2. Paul Cézanne, "The Card Players"—$250 million–$300 million

The painting "Card Players," by Paul Cezanne, is visible at left during a tour of the The Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., May 28, 2003.
Jessica Griffin | AP

Yet another of the top five most expensive paintings in the world is housed somewhere in Qatar. One of five oil paintings entitled "The Card Players" by French 19th-century Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne was bought by the tiny Gulf State's royal family in 2011 for an undisclosed price estimated to range anywhere from $250 million to $300 million. (The version pictured is on display at Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.)

The painting, dating back to the early 1890s, depicts Provencal, or southern French, peasants playing cards and smoking pipes; some experts note the lack of alcohol or money (implying gambling) in the painting, which may have increased its appeal to its Qatari purchasers.

1. Paul Gauguin, "Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)"—$300 million

Paul Gauguin painting 'Nafea faa ipoipo' (When Will You Marry?) is seen at Reina Sofia Museum on July 3, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.
Quim Lienas | Getty Images

This 1892 oil painting of two Tahitian girls by another French Post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin, was sold for a reported $300 million or so this past February to an undisclosed buyer, according to The New York Times, making it the all-time most expensive painting ever. Any guesses as to the purchaser? Many bets are — surprise — on a group of state museums in Qatar, which has embarked on an ambitious museum-building and art-acquisition campaign backed by the energy-rich emirate's royal family.

According to reporters Scott Reyburn and Doreen Carvajal of the Times, "Gauguin's Tahiti-period paintings are among the most admired and coveted artworks of the Post-Impressionist period." The new owners of this work, painted during the first of Gauguin's two periods of residency in Tahiti, will take possession of it come January. It had most recently hung in the Beyeler Foundation museum in Riehen, Switzerland.

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