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16 Highest Selling Items in Auction History

Highest Selling U.S. Government Auction

U.S. Wireless Spectrum Sale

If you live in the United States (and aren’t a total lush) then you remember the government advertising campaign that was launched in 2008 to inform the public about the U.S. digital television transition. On June 12, 2009, all full power TV stations in the U.S. ceased analog broadcasting. Before the change, the analog TV broadcasting spectrum was the accepted method used for transmitting television signals for free over-the-air TV programming. On January 24, 2008, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened an auction and accepted bids on a United States 700 MHz FCC wireless spectrum. It was officially known as Auction 73.

The event sparked major controversy between some of the largest telecommunication companies in the world, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and Google Inc. The 700 MHz spectrum that was being sold was previously used for analog television broadcasting, specifically UHF channels 52 through 69. After the change to digital television was announced, the FCC ruled that these TV frequencies were no longer necessary for broadcasters. The auction divided the UHF spectrum into 5 blocks. The most highly publicized block was the open access C-Block, which was sold to Verizon for $4.74 billion. In all, Auction 73 raised an astounding $19.59 billion.

Highest Selling Painting

Jackson Pollock - No. 5, 1948

Jackson Pollock was an influential American painter and major figure in the abstract expressionist movement of art. He had a volatile personality and struggled with alcoholism during his lifetime. In 1956, Jackson Pollock died in a single-vehicle car crash. He was only 44-years-old. No. 5, 1948 is a famous painting by Jackson Pollock. The portrait was completed on an 8 foot (243.84 cm) by 4 foot (121.92 cm) sheet of fiberboard. It contains a thick amount of brown and yellow paint, forming a nest-like appearance. Jackson Pollock used his signature style of splattered paint when creating the masterpiece. No. 5, 1948 was originally owned by Samuel Irving Newhouse and displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, but in 2006 it was sold.

According to numerous press releases, the painting was sold by David Geffen, founder of Geffen Records, to David Martinez, who is the managing partner of Fintech Advisory Ltd. The sale was reportedly brokered by Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer and the painting was purchased for the price of $140 million. This makes Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 the highest selling painting in auction history. Despite evidence that the artwork was sold for $140 million dollars, David Martinez has released a statement saying that he does not own the painting. No. 5, 1948 will continue to rise in value, as very few Jackson Pollock paintings remain. A different painting by Pollock named Blue Poles is thought to be more valuable then No. 5, 1948. Blue Poles is owned by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Highest Selling Sculpture

Alberto Giacometti - L'Homme qui marche I

Alberto Giacometti is a famous Swiss sculptor and painter. He was a key member of the Surrealist Movement and created hundreds of pieces of art during his lifetime. His works are featured in museums all over the world and are extremely valuable, especially his sculptures. L'Homme qui marche I (The Walking Man) is the name given to any one of a series of cast bronze sculptures created by Alberto Giacometti in 1961. The sculptures comprise six numbered editions plus four artist proofs. They depict a lone man in mid-stride with his arms hanging at his side. The sculptures are life-sized and measure 183 cm (72 in). The collection has been described as "both a humble image of an ordinary man and a potent symbol of humanity". L'Homme qui marche has become one of the most iconic images of modern art.

In February of 2010, edition number two of the sculpture was placed for sale at Sotheby's auction house in London. It was the first time in 20 years that a human sized Giacometti figure of a walking man had been sold at auction. It was initially expected to bring between £12 and £18 million, but only eight minutes after being placed for sale the sculpture was purchased by Lily Safra, widow of the prominent Lebanese banker Edmond Safra for £58 million. After the buyer's premium, the price reached £65 million (US$103.7 million). This made the second edition of L'Homme qui marche I the highest selling sculpture in history. In fact, it jumped into the Top 10 most valuable items ever sold at a public auction. The previous record holder was the 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian statue named Guennol Lioness, which was sold in 2007 for $57.2 million.

Highest Selling Piece of Furniture

Badminton Cabinet

Henry Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort, lived from 1707 to 1745. At the age of 19, Duke Scudamore commissioned the construction of a chest that would later become known as the Badminton Cabinet. This was the mid-life crises are like when you’re a duke and only live to 38. The Badminton Cabinet consists of an ornate set of drawers. It was developed in Florence and the chest is made of ebony wood inlaid with amethyst quartz, agate, lapis lazuli and many other precious gems. The cabinet is a true masterpiece, as it combines architecture, sculpture and painting with mosaic work and hard precious stones. The chest measures 386 cm high by 232.5 cm wide.

The cabinet derives its name from Badminton House in Gloucestershire, England. In 2004, the Badminton Cabinet was auctioned off for an astounding $35 million. The item was purchased by Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein. The sale made the Badminton Cabinet the most valuable piece of furniture in the world. It is quite possibly the most important piece of decorative art to have been commissioned by a British patron in 300 years. The chest is currently on display in the Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna, Austria.

Highest Selling Car

1936 Bugatti 57SC Atlantic

Jean Bugatti is one of the most renowned automotive designers of the early 20th century. In 1934, he developed the first Bugatti Type 57 automobile. The Type 57 was a new design of car and Bugatti would produce 710 different Type 57s between 1934 and 1940, including the famous 1936 Bugatti 57SC Atlantic. The two basic variants of the car were the original type 57 and the lowered Type 57S. Sadly, the production of the Type 57 was stopped after Jean Bugatti died in an automobile accident in 1939. He was only 30-years-old.

The Atlantic body Type 57S is considered by some to be the most beautiful pre-war car. The vehicle features flowing coupe lines with a pronounced dorsal seam running front to back. Jean Bugatti produced only four Type 57S Atlantics during his lifetime and two survive today. One is a 1938 Type 57SC Atlantic, which is currently in the collection of Ralph Lauren. The second is a 1936 Type 57SC Atlantic, which was previously owned by Dr. Peter Williamson. Peter Williamson passed away in 2008 and his Atlantic was auctioned off in May of 2010.

The car set a world record and was sold for between $30 and $40 million. It was purchased by the Mullin Automotive Museum located in Oxnard, California. The previous sales record for an automobile sold at auction was a 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, which sold in Maranello, Italy, in May 2009 for $12.2 million. The 1936 Bugatti 57SC Atlantic easily became the most valuable car to change hands at auction. The vehicle has been described as a piece of engine powered art.

Highest Selling Book

Codex Leicester

The Codex Leicester is a collection of scientific writings by Leonardo da Vinci. During the life of Leonardo da Vinci, he kept many journals and text books documenting his thoughts and experiences. He prized his journals and most of them were written in a mirror-image cursive. He probably did this in order to keep them secret. The Codex Leicester is the most famous of all Leonardo da Vinci scientific journals. It is named after the English patron Thomas Coke, who purchased the text in 1717. Coke would become the 1st Earl of Leicester during his lifetime. The Codex is quite exquisite and provides a rare insight into the inquiring mind of Leonardo. In the text, he hypothesizes on many topics. Most notably he makes observations and theories on astronomy, the properties of water, rocks, fossils, and celestial light.

The text was written on 18 sheets of paper, each folded in half and scripted on both sides, ultimately forming a complete 72-page document. In 1994, the Codex Leicester was purchased by Bill Gates. He paid $30.8 million for the masterpiece, making the writings the most expensive book ever sold at auction. Bill Gates wants the world to share in the joy of the text, so he puts it on display in a different museum each year. In 2004, the book was exhibited in the Château de Chambord and in 2005 in was on display in Tokyo. In 2007 the Codex Leicester was the centerpiece of a two-month show in Dublin, Ireland.

Highest Selling Chair

Eileen Gray Chair

Eileen Gray was an Irish furniture designer and architect. Today, she is highly recognized as a pioneer of the Modern Movement in architecture. During her career, Eileen became known for the innovative Bibendum Chair, which was one of the 20th century’s most recognizable furniture designs. Eileen Gray contained an exclusive customer base and developed some incredible pieces of furniture. She caught the eye of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who helped propel Eileen’s public image.

In fact, Yves Saint Laurent went out of his way to purchase many of her pieces. In 2009, Christie’s auction house in Paris sold the monumental private collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. The antiques raised a record-breaking £370 million (US$490 million). One of the items sold was a "Dragons'" armchair created by Eileen Gray. The chair was sold for £21.9 million (US$28 million), setting an auction record for a piece of 20th century decorative art.

Highest Selling Diamond

Wittelsbach Diamond

The Wittelsbach Diamond was a 35.56 carat fancy deep blue colored diamond with internally flawless clarity. In 2008, the Wittelsbach Diamond was sold at Christie's auction house in London for a record breaking sum of $23.4 million. It was purchased by Lawrence Graff and the amount is currently the highest price ever paid for a diamond at auction. The diamond is not the largest in the world, but the clarity and color is amazing. The Wittelsbach Diamond has a long and storied history. It has at one point been part of the Austrian and the Bavarian Crown jewels. Many people have drawn comparisons to the Hope Diamond, which is also a deep blue colored diamond. Claims have been made that the Wittelsbach Diamond was at one point cut from the Hope Diamond.

However, in 2010, both diamonds were studied in depth by the Smithsonian Institution and found to be two different stones. The Wittelsbach Diamond originated from the mines of the former Indian kingdom of Golkonda. In 2010, the owner of the diamond, Lawrence Graff, revealed that he had altered the diamond and had it cut by three separate workers in hopes of removing flaws. The Wittelsbach Diamond became four carats lighter (31.06) and was renamed the Wittelsbach-Graff Diamond. This has upset many historians, who are claiming that the recutting has made the famous stone unrecognizable and that its historical integrity has been compromised.

Highest Selling Piece of American Furniture

John Goddard Desk

The Townsend and Goddard families were two Quaker families that were part of a large cabinetmaking community centered in the Easton's Point neighborhood of Newport, Rhode Island. The Townsend and Goddard families have a long history of cabinet making in the Newport area. In fact, twenty-one members of successive generations of these two intermarried families worked as cabinetmakers over a period of 120 years. The family’s most famous desk was created by John Goddard in the 1760s and sold to the merchant Nicholas Brown. The item is a six-shell desk-bookcase. It is a bonnet-topped mahogany secretary, robustly carved with a block-and-shell front.

The desk is 113 inches (287 cm) tall and is one of the nine six-shell Newport secretaries known to survive. The item is one of the most prestigious pieces of American furniture in the world. In 1989, the desk was sold by the family of Nicholas Brown for $12.1 million. At the time, the desk set a record for the highest selling auction item that was not a painting. After taking the cost of inflation into account, the 1760s John Goddard Desk is almost topping the list of the most valuable pieces of furniture in the world.

Highest Selling Coin

1794 American Silver Dollar

In May of 2010, a 1794 American Silver Dollar set a world mark when it was auctioned off for $7.85 million. The coin surpassed the record that was previously held by a 1933 Double Eagle that was sold for $7.59 million in 2002. The 1794 Silver Dollar is a rare coin. In 1792, the U.S. Coinage Act was passed and it authorized the production of silver dollars. In 1794, the first silver dollars were coined and there were precisely 1,758 of them made, with approximately 150 remaining.

The 1794 Silver Dollar is unique to others, as it features a flowing hair design. The coin that set the auction record was in great shape and rated MS-66 (PCGS). It has been determined that it is the earliest struck example of the 1794 Silver Dollar still in existence. The coin was purchased by the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation of California. The foundation plans to display it at various locations and museums in the world.

Highest Selling Musical Instrument

Ex-Vieuxtemps - Giuseppe Guarneri Violin

Giuseppe Guarneri was an Italian luthier from the Guarneri house of Cremona. He lived from 1698 to 1744 and is highly regarded as one of the finest violin makers to ever live. The only other man to rival his work was the Italian crafter Antonio Stradivari. In 1741, Guarneri created his most prized violin. A piece that was once owned by famous Belgian composer and violinist Henri Vieuxtemps. The instrument also has a connection with Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini. It was Paganini that first heard Vieuxtemps play the violin at the age of 14, and predicted that “the boy would definitely become a great man.”

In 2008, Ex-Vieuxtemps became the highest selling musical instrument of all time when it was auctioned off for $3.9 million. The violin was purchased by Russian lawyer and violinist Maxim Viktorov. A few months after buying the violin, Viktorov held a private concert and hired musician Pinchas Zukerman to play the famous instrument in front of a group of Russian socialites. Prior to the sale of the Ex-Vieuxtemps, the highest selling musical instrument was a violin named The Hammer, which was made by Antonio Stradivari and sold in 2006 for $3.54 million.

Highest Selling Baseball Card

T206 Honus Wagner

Honus Wagner was a professional baseball player who was a member of the National League from 1897 to 1917. He was nicknamed the Flying Dutchman due to his speed and German heritage. During his career, Honus Wagner won eight batting titles and led the league in stolen bases five times. He was one of the first five members elected into the baseball hall of fame and received the second highest vote total, behind only Ty Cobb. Most baseball historians consider Honus Wagner to be the best shortstop to ever play the game of baseball. The T206 Honus Wagner baseball card was designed and issued by the American Tobacco Company (ATC) from 1909 to 1911 as part of its T206 series. Honus Wagner did not like the card’s distributer and demanded that it not be sold, so only 50 to 200 T206 Honus Wagner baseball cards were ever produced.

There is one particular T206 Honus Wagner card that has a long and controversial history. It has become known as the "Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner" card because in was purchased by the hockey legend in 1991. In 1995, Gretzky resold the card to Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment for $500,000. Wal-Mart used the card as the top prize in a promotional contest, which was eventually won by a Florida postal worker. The man ended up auctioning the card off at Christie's auction house and it was purchased by collector Michael Gidwitz for $640,000. In 2000, Gidwitz sold the card on eBay for $1.27 million. In 2007, the T206 Honus Wagner was auctioned off once again and this time it raised $2.35 million. Six months later it was sold to a California collector for $2.8 million.

Highest Selling Stamp

Treskilling Yellow

In 1855, Sweden issued its first postage stamps and they were used as currency. It total, five stamps were produced and they depicted the Swedish coat of arms, with denominations ranging from 3 to 24 skillings banco. The 3-skilling banco stamp was printed in a blue-green color, while the 8-skilling note was printed in a yellowish orange shade. It is unclear how the error occurred, but it seems that at some point the 8-skilling printing plate was mistakenly replaced with a 3-skilling plate. This caused a very small number of 3-skilling stamps to be printed in the yellowish orange shade that usually represented an 8-skilling stamp. In 1886, the first and only Treskilling Yellow was discovered. The stamp became internationally known in 1894 when it was purchased by Philipp von Ferrary for an astounding 4,000 gulden. At least, we’re told it’s astounding.

As time passed, no other "yellows" surfaced. It has become clear that the stamp is not only rare, but quite possibly the only surviving example. The Treskilling Yellow has been sold numerous times in its history and currently holds the world record sales price for a postage stamp. In 1996, the stamp was sold for 2.5 million Swiss francs. Similar to other high price auction items, the selling party and buyer are not required to release their names or the sale amount. This makes it difficult to report on these sales, but in May of 2010 the Treskilling Yellow was sold by David Feldman auction house in Geneva, Switzerland. The company released a statement saying that the stamp sold "for at least the $2.5 million price it set a record for in 1996.” The buyer was an "international consortium" and the seller was a financial firm looking to settle the debt on a foreclosed estate. All bidders in the auction were sworn to secrecy.

Highest Selling Comic Book

Detective Comics #27 (May 1939)

Detective Comics is an American comic book published monthly by DC Comics. The story is the longest continually published comic in the United States and has been in existence since 1937. Detective Comics is best-known for introducing the iconic superhero Batman in the May 1939 issue #27. For this reason, Detective Comics #27 has become one of the most valuable and sought after comic books in the world. The issue features a great adventure of the Crimson Avenger, with the Byzantine crime fighter taking on a gambling ring that kills everyone who doesn't pay their debts.

In February of 2010, a copy of Detective Comics #27 was offered in a Heritage comic book auction. It was in pristine condition and the issue sold for the amount of $1,075,500. That made this copy of Detective Comics #27 the highest selling comic book in history, more than tripling the previous auction record, which was held by a copy of Action Comics #1. The auction price far exceeded published estimates and it was a historic moment when a single comic book sold for more than $1 million.

Highest Selling Action Figure

1964 G.I. Joe Prototype

G.I. Joe is a line of action figures that is produced by the toy company Hasbro. The term G.I. stands for Government Issue and the first G.I. Joe toy was released in 1964. In developing the toy, Hasbro wanted to create a realistic action figure, so they decided to represent the four branches of the U.S. armed forces, including the Soldier (Army), Action Sailor (Navy), Action Pilot (Air Force) and Action Marine (Marines). The original G.I. Joe toy was approximately 12 inches tall and their development directly led to the coining of the term "action figure." It was an attempt by Hasbro to create a toy that was targeted towards boys, to match the high success of Mattel’s Barbie, which was first released in 1959.

In the United Kingdom, the G.I. Joe toy line was licensed to Palitoy and their figures were known as Action Man. In July of 2003, a 1964 G.I. Joe action figure prototype was auctioned off in San Diego for $200,000. The toy is hand crafted and with the sale it became the most valuable action figure in the world. In comparison, the most valuable Barbie doll fetched $17,000 dollars in 2008. One of the most remarkable things about the G.I. Joe prototype is how closely the head resembles what the actual toy ended up looking like.

Highest Selling NES Video Game

Stadium Events

Stadium Events is the English title given to the Japanese video game Running Stadium. The game was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986. The North American version of Stadium Events is universally accepted as one of the rarest licensed NES games in the world. In 1987, Nintendo released the Power Pad and subsequently stopped production on all Family Fun Fitness-branded games.

This is why only 2000 copies of Stadium Events were made in North America, of which an estimated 200 reached consumers before being recalled. On February 26, 2010, a brand new factory sealed copy of Stadium Events was sold on e-bay for $41,300. The unexpected amount nearly doubled the previous sales record for a NES game.

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