Auctions offer a simple way to find the maximum price for a highly desired item. But just how high can prices go during the bidding?
Here at BullionVault, we’ve conducted some research and put together an infographic that includes some of the most expensive items ever sold at auction. From the UK’s gold reserves to Picasso artwork to a rare Ferrari, this list contains some amazing historic items...with some seriously high price tags.
Did you know that the dress Marilyn Monroe wore for her infamous performance of "Happy Birthday Mr.President" to John F.Kennedy was sold for $4.6 million? Or that the entire Roman Empire was sold at auction for around the equivalent £3.8 billion? (The buyer was murdered 3 months later because he couldn’t pay up.) Or that Napoleon’s sword broke the world record for the most expensive weapon sold at auction when it sold for $6.5 million?
Read on to find out more about some of the world’s most crazily expensive auction items that were sold for top dollar.
3G Telecom Licenses
In March 2000 the UK government sold 5 chunks of the electromagnetic spectrum, literally "selling air" according to the economists helping arrange the sale. Closing after 149 rounds, the auction raised the equivalent of £400 per head of the British population. The winning bidders then lost 75% of their stockmarket value in the ensuing Telecoms Crash. Popular 3G smartphones took almost a decade to arrive.
UK Gold Reserves
With gold prices at 20-year lows, and defying advice from the Bank of England, UK Chancellor Gordon Brown announced in May 1999 that he would sell 415 tonnes of the nation's gold reserves, almost 60% of its holdings. The news pushed gold prices even lower, and Brown's 17 auctions achieved an average price of $275 per ounce. Gold rose 6-fold over the following decade, reaching an all-time high of $1896.50 on 5 September 2011 at London's benchmark AM Fix auction.
Boeing C-17 Globemaster III
In 2009, Boeing bid and won a contract to deliver 15 of these aircrafts, working out at $328 million per plane. The military-transport plane is most commonly used for strategic airlift missions, transporting cargo and troops, performing medical evacuations and airdrop missions.
Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O) by Pablo Picasso
The final piece in a series of 15 paintings created in 1954-55, this Picasso broke all records for the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction, beating Francis Bacon's 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud' sold for $142.4m two years earlier.
Giacometti’s Pointing Man
Adding Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti's 1949 bronze cast to his $1bn art collection, hedge-fund manager Cohen beat his own world record for the most expensive sculpture at auction, out-bidding the $101m he had spent the previous year on Giacometti's bronze 'Chariot' at Sotheby's record-breaking evening sale of Impressionist and Modern Art, which raised a total of $422m in 2014.
Balloon Dog (Orange) by Jeff Koons
Currently the most expensive work by a living artist, this is one of several 'balloon' animal sculptures created by Koons' workshop, all using mirror-polished stainless steel and all brightly coloured. Another Balloon Dog sparked controversy when shown in pink at Versailles near Paris, shocking some visitors and historians as too kitsch and contemporary for the grand château.
Taking its name from diamond dealer and race-horse breeder Sir Philip Oppenheimer, this 14.62-carat Fancy Vivid blue diamond has been described as "one of the rarest gems in the world". Part of the powerful South Africa-based mine-owning dynasty, Oppenheimer had originally given the stone to his wife, set in a platinum-clasp ring.
1962-63 Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta
The most expensive car ever sold at auction, this 3-litre V12 has a chequered history. Retired Olympic skier Henri Oreiller died after crashing it during a race in 1962. The Ferrari factory repaired and rebuilt the car again two years later after the next owner flipped it into the undergrowth at the Coppa Inter-Europa in Monza.
The Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet
Dating back to the 17th-century, this Persian carpet was sold by the Corcoran Gallery of Art to raise money for future acquisitions. The carpet had belonged to William Clark, an industrialist and U.S. senator, who bequeathed it to the Corcoran Gallery on his death.
The Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci
Written in 1506-13 by Leonardo da Vinci, this manuscript of scientific notes and drawings was snapped up by the Microsoft founder when he was only the world's fifth wealthiest person on Forbes' Rich List. The Codex Leicester was subsequently unbound and each page individually mounted between glass panes, ready to be exhibited at a different museum around the world every year.
Patek Philippe Wristwatch
Auction-goers entered into a 13-minute bidding war to get their hands on this 1943 Patek Philippe watch. The steel-cased, perpetual calendar chronograph watch is one of only four known to exist.
Flowing Hair Silver Dollar
Thought to be the first such coin struck by the U.S. Mint, this 1794-95 silver dollar depicts Lady Liberty on one side and an eagle on the other. Auctioned several times before setting the highest price ever paid for any coin of any metal, it would fetch less than $14 if sold for scrap at current silver prices.
Once belonging to Napoléon Bonaparte and used at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, this sword holds the Guinness World Record for the most expensive weapon ever sold at auction. The sale stipulated the new owner must have an address in France and keep the sword in the country for five or more months a year.
Marilyn Monroe's Dress
Encrusted with more than 2,500 hand-stitched crystals, the dress is recognisable from the actress' iconic performance of "Happy Birthday, Mr President" for President John F.Kennedy in 1962. Rumour has it that the dress was so figure-hugging that Monroe had to be sewn into it.
Honus Wagner Baseball Card
Only 200 of the American Tobacco Company’s T206 series baseball cards were made, and only 50 remain in circulation. This card, depicting Honus Wagner, a player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, set a new record for trading cards sold at auction. However, on its release Wagner demanded to be removed from the card series, perhaps because he didn't agree with the cigarette company marketing to children.
This set of 114 bottles holds the record for the most expensive wine lot ever sold at auction. Working out at around $1,700 per glass for 912 glasses, the vintages ran from 1992 to 2010. Romanée-Conti wine dates back to the 12th century and comes from one of the most highly regarded vineyards in Burgundy.
The Roman Empire
Rome's elite secret-service Praetorian Guard killed Emperor Pertinax just 3 months after he'd killed the volatile Commodus, offering pretty much the entire known world to the highest bidder at auction. Wealthy senator Didius Julianus beat a rival bidder with a promise worth 40 years of take-home pay to each member of the guard, around $750,000 in today's money. But Julianus failed to pay up, and was murdered in turn 3 months later.