In 2015 the art world was shocked when the announcement was made of a sensational new record. The press had just revealed that Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), a painting of two young Tahitian girls by Paul Gauguin from 1892, had been sold in a private sale for $300 million (see Gauguin Pulls Record €300 Million Sale: Highest Price Ever Paid for a Painting). Rudolf Staechelin, formerly of Sotheby’s, had sold it to a Qatari collector. The sum therefore became the highest ever paid for an artwork.

Last week, however, a sudden reversal meant that Gauguin lost this title when a legal dispute revealed the actual sum paid for the work: $210 million, not 300 million.

If this court case had not taken place in London last Wednesday, the details of the sale would probably have remained secret, as private transactions of this nature remain discreet. As things stand, however, we know the conditions under which the sale was made. According to documents provided to the court by the well-known auctioneer Simon de Pury, in 2014 the work was purchased from Rudolf Staechelin by a company owned by the British art dealer Guy Bennet on behalf of the Emir of Qatar. Simon de Pury claims to have been the intermediary between the seller and buyer and is demanding a commission of $10 million. No written contract passed between the two parties. This is logical, claims Mr de Pury’s lawyer, in a milieu that operates in complete discretion and on the basis of “mutual trust”. Rudolf Staechelin has contested Simon de Pury’s claim.

The most expensive painting ever sold therefore becomes Willem de Kooning’s Interchanged, which was bought by the businessman Kenneth Griffin from the music producer David Geffen for close on $300 million in September 2015. In comparison, the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, was knocked down for $179 million in May 2015 at Christie’s.

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