Discover the most incredible auction items that broke records with their jaw-dropping prices

By Neil Dolby
Aug 19, 2023

From a portrait painting that was discovered around the time of the painter’s death to a magnificent ruby that was mined from Mozambique last year, many highly valuable items were auctioned off. The four items that particularly stood out at this season’s auctions include the 55.22-carat Estrela de Fura, Gustave Klimt’s Dame mit Fächer, Tipu Sultan’s bedchamber sword and Antonio Canova’s Bust of Helen. Get to know how each attracted ground-breaking bids for being a unique masterpiece.

Red Light

Huge Mozambique ruby outshines all

A magnificent ruby unearthed in Mozambique last year has surpassed the world record for its type of precious stone – or indeed any coloured gem – sold at auction. The 55.22-carat Estrela de Fura, the largest gem-quality ruby in existence, stirred up frenzied interest from collectors ahead of its highly anticipated appearance at Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels auction in New York. The eventual selling price reached an astonishing US$34.8 million, surpassing the previous record of US$30.3 million held by Sunrise Ruby, a 25.59-carat Burmese stone auctioned in 2015.

Discovered as a 101-carat rough, Estrela de Fura was cut and faceted by a team of artisans who transformed it into a beautiful cushion-shaped ruby of outstanding clarity and vivid red hue. Rich in chromium, it radiates a fiery red fluorescence when exposed to ultraviolet light. Since traditionally Myanmar (Burma) has been the birthplace of spectacular rubies, the Swiss Gemmological Institute singled it out for particular praise. It stated: “A natural ruby from Mozambique of this size and quality can be considered very rare and thus an exceptional treasure of nature.”

Lady Luck

Hong Konger clinches Klimt’s final portrait

An amazing bidding war during Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction in London for a work of art found at the time of the artist’s death has resulted in a new European record. The painting by Gustave Klimt, entitled Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan), set the auction house abuzz and a four-way battle for the masterpiece ensued, pushing up the prized lot to £85.3 million (HK$850.5 million). The triumphant bid – by a Hong Kong collector – also achieved a record price for the artist and the second highest ever paid for a portrait at auction.

Klimt’s female portraits have taken their place among the iconic images of modern art. Lady with a Fan dates from 1917-18 and represented a new approach to colour and form for the Austrian, combining rich patterns and oriental motifs with the delicate and luminous touch of an artist at the height of his powers. Prior to this final portrait – Klimt died in 1918 – he had earned a reputation for his erotic representations of women.

“Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) is an absolute testament to Klimt’s artistic genius,” said Helena Newman, Auctioneer and Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe.

Prize of the Tiger

Sultan’s sword slashes sale estimate

A bedchamber sword that belonged to Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, has slashed its way into the record books at Bonhams, selling for a whopping £14 million (HK$142.45 million) after ferocious bidding. This is the highest price achieved at auction by an Islamic and Indian object and the best ever for a sword. It also represented a huge markup on the estimate of up to £2 million.

The masterpiece of late 18th-century Indian manufacture was part of Bonhams’ Islamic and Indian Art sale in London. Dubbed ‘The Bedchamber Sword’, it has huge historical significance as an emblem of the Anglo-Mysore Wars (1767- 1799). Tipu Sultan – the Muslim ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in south India – was long a thorn in the side of the British East India Company. After he was killed during the siege of his stronghold, Seringapatam, in 1799, the sword was discovered in his private apartments and became symbolic of the transfer of power. An English inscription on the blade explains how it was found and presented to the leader of the conquering Company army, Major-General David Baird.

Immortal Beauty

Helen of Troy bust wows bidders

A magnificent marble bust emanating from Greek mythology has gone for £3.55 million (HK$36 million) at auction. Sold during Christie’s Old Masters sale in London, Bust of Helen attracted fierce bidding. Carved by Antonio Canova in Venice from 1816-17, the beautiful head of Helen of Troy was on the auction block for the first time in its history.

Antonio Canova (1757-1822) is deemed a titan of neo-classical sculpture, and his marble carving of Helen is a classic example of his ability to portray exquisite beauty with remarkable realism. The bust was gifted to British aristocrat Robert Castlereagh in recognition of his efforts to secure the return of works of art to Italy after the Napoleonic Wars, imbuing the piece with added historical significance. When Byron gazed at the smooth white surface of Canova’s first Bust of Helen, created some five years previously, he was inspired to write a poem ending in the line, “Behold the Helen of the Heart!”

Donald Johnston, Christie’s International Head of Sculpture, noted: “There has been increased interest in neo-classical marbles over the last five to eight years.”