The 10 Most Expensive Antiques Ever Sold at Auction
How do you know what the greatest treasure of human history is? You ascribe a monetary value to it of course. Some artifacts may appear priceless but at an antique auction house, everything has a price. By this metric, it is possible to know which antiques the free market as decided are the most valuable treasures of all.
10. Napoleon’s Gold-Encrusted Sword - $6,500,000 at Osenat in France
This antique is the golden sword used by Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of Marengo in 1800 (the surprise attack that forced the Austrians out of Italy). It was also used during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. It was sold in June 2007.
9. Germain Royal Soup Tureen - $10,287,500 at Sotheby’s New York
The soup tureen antique was designed for French King Louis XV by silversmith Thomas Germain. Starting in 1723, Germain served as the orfèvre du roi (silversmith of the King) and became renowned for his Rococo style. The lid depicts the makings of the meal with vegetables, shellfish, and birds; the handles are shaped like boars’ heads and the feed resemble the feet of wild hogs. It is believed to be one of the few remaining silver soup tureens of this era, thus its value. “Kevin Tierney, the head of silver at Sotheby’s, described the tureen as ‘an object steeped in history, that survived the melts ordered to pay for the Seven Years' War and the French Revolution’” (JustCollecting, Germain, 2017). It was sold in 1996 to an anonymous buyer.
The Germain Royal Soup Tureen
8. The Goddard-Townsend Antique Secretary Desk - $12,100,000 at Christie’s in New York
This antique was handcrafted by a Quaker cabinet-maker in 1760. The desk is 112 inches (2.8 meters) tall and made out of mahogany. Goddard is largely credited with developing the ‘block front’ design, a minimalist look that is quintessentially America. This antique is thought to be only one of nine Goddard desks in existence. It was purchased in 1989 and remains to this day the highest price paid for a piece of American antique furniture.
7. Princess Katherine Henckel Emerald and Diamond Tiara - $12.1 million at Sotheby’s Geneva
Embellished with 11 rare Columbian emeralds, the tiara of the German Princess Katherine Henckel is over 500 karats. Legend has it that the emeralds were once part of a necklace worn by a Maharajah. It was commissioned by her husband, Prince Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck. Later, it was worn by the wife of Emperor Napoleon III, Eugénie de Montijo (full name: Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox y KirkPatrick, 16th Countess of Teba, 15th Marchioness of Ardales). It was sold at auction in May 2011.
Princess Katherine Henckel Emerald and Diamond Tiara ( Sothebys)
6. Ming Dynasty Gold Tripod Vessel – HK$116.8 million (US$15 million) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong
The exquisite beauty of this antique would have been enough to make it a worthy addition to any collection but it is also one of only eight such antiques still in existence. The golden vessel is believed to have been made during the Xuande Period of the Ming Dynasty (Emperor Xuande reigned from 1399 to 1435). Emperor Xuande’s reign is considered to be one of the most sophisticated periods of Chinese art, particularly with regards to porcelain crafts. This vessel is made of 18 karat gold in which has been masterfully carved a pair of five-clawed dragons chasing ‘flaming pearls’ across the clouds. Those flaming pearls are “embellished with precious cabochon gems set in gold casing with the mouth further decorated with a band of detached scrolling leaves studded with gems including natural pearls, turquoise, rubies, sapphires, and cat's eye chrysoberyl” (JustCollecting, Ming, 2017). The dragons encircle a lotus petal medallion, the bud of which is a bright blue sapphire. The antique was sold to a western bidder in April 2008.
Ming Dynasty Gold Tripod Vessel ( Sothebys)
5. Pink-Enameled Blue And White Porcelain Moonflask – HK$123million (US$16 million) at JJ Lally & Co. in New York
Crafted sometime between 1736 and 1795, this antique artistically combines pink enamel with blue and white porcelain. The Qianlong six-character mark allows experts to date the piece to the 16th century Qianlong Dynasty period. The flask is considered a moon flask because of its rounded body. It features a flaming pearl and two phoenixes. The handles are of the dragon scroll design and the mouth of the flask is ringed with a ruyi band (a Chinese talisman that symbolizes power and good fortune). It was sold at auction in November 1987.
4. Olyphant Battle Horn - $16.1 million at a private auction in Scandinavia
This fully functioning battle horn is made from an elephant’s tusk and intricately carved with motifs of animals of the hunt, including rabbits, ducks, and deer. It is one of only six such ornamentally carved olifant instruments still in existence. The most famous olifant horn was the one that played a key role in the Song of Roland . The Olyphant antique was crafted during the 11 th century.
The Olyphant Battle Horn ( therichest.com)
3. Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester - $30.8 million at Christie’s in New York
Thomas Coke, the Earl of Leicester, bought this antique scientific document in 1719. The manuscript is made up of 18 sheets of paper that are folded in half and written on both sides, thus making it 72 pages long. The work contains da Vinci’s notes (written in his signature mirror writing style), drawing, diagrams, and sketches. In a unique blend of art and science, the manuscript speculates on why fossils can be found in mountains, the properties of water, theories on astronomy, and a proposition that the surface of the moon is covered in water. The Codex was sold in 1994 to Bill Gates, who then scanned each page and made the digital images available online. The Codex itself regularly tours museums around the world.
A page from Leonardo da Vinci’s codex Leicester ( public domain )
2. The Badminton Cabinet - $36 million at Christie’s in London
This piece of antique furniture twice set records for most expensive sale: in 1990 it sold for $16.6 million; then in 2004 it sold for $36 million. Projections suggest that by 2064 it will be worth $1 billion. The Cabinet was commissioned by Henry Somerset-Scudamore, 3 rd Duke of Beaufort, in 1726. It took 30 Florentine expert craftsmen six years to complete the 12-foot (3.6 meter) tall ebony cabinet. It is named after the Duke’s Gloucestershire residence, the Badminton House. The Cabinet was purchased by noted antique collector Prinz Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein and is on display at the Liechtenstein Museum.
1. Pinner Qing Dynasty Vase - $80.2 million at a private sale through Bonhams Auction House
This Chinese vase is the most expensive antique ever sold. A golden vase featuring fish and flower motifs, the Pinner Qing Dynasty Vase is widely praised for its purity and beauty. It is also exceptionally rare. The vase bares the imperial seal and is believed to have been crafted for Emperor Qianlong, who reigned between 1736 and 1795. How the vase made it from the Imperial City of China to a London auction house is a mystery. Legend has it that an explorer who traveled in China in the 1920s took it home with him as a souvenir. At first, it was thought to be a nice replica and valued at only $1000. When it was determined to be authentic, the antique was reappraised at $1 million. Flush with cash, a Chinese billionaire industrialist first won the vase at a 2010 auction at Bainbridge’s for £43 million, a record in and of itself. However, the buyer was unwilling to pay the auction fees associated with the purchase (which would have brought the total price to £53.1 million). For over a year, the buyer and seller remained at a stalemate. Eventually, the vase was resold privately for $80.2 million. Of that, the original consigner (a possible descendent of the explorer) of the vase received only $29 million from the final sale.
The Pinner Qing Dynasty Vase ( justcollecting.com)
Top image: Napoleon’s gold-encrusted sword.
Drughi, Octavia. "Old World Charm: Most Expensive Antiques Ever Sold." TheRichest. TheRichest, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. http://www.therichest.com/luxury/most-expensive/old-world-charm-most-expensive-antiques-ever-sold/.
JustCollecting. "Germain Royal Soup Tureen." JustCollecting. N.p., 2017. Web. https://www.justcollecting.com/miscellania/germain-royal-soup-tureen.
JustCollecting. "Ming Dynasty Gold Tripod Vessel." JustCollecting. N.p., 2017. Web. https://www.justcollecting.com/antiques/ming-dynasty-gold-tripod-vessel.
Vantique. "Most Expensive Antiques in the World Top 10." Vantiques. N.p., 19 Jan. 2016. Web. http://www.vantiques.nl/2016/01/15/most-expensive-antiques-in-the-world-top-10/.