Did you know that the most expensive painting in the world (sold at auction) is of disputed provenance, or that the most expensive sculpture ever sold was "Plan B" for its creator? From the priciest coin to the costliest kidney stone and beyond, these are the most expensive things ever sold, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. Most Expensive Manuscript: The Codex Leicester
The most expensive manuscript ever sold at auction, adjusting for inflation, was The Codex Leicester, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks full of scientific musings and sketches. The codex, which owes its name to onetime owner Thomas Coke, the Earl of Leicester, was sold to Bill Gates in 1994 for over $30 million. The book was written in Leonardo’s signature mirror-writing style, and it provides a glimpse into his unique way of thinking.
The ultimate renaissance man’s wandering mind takes him to some fascinating places in the diary: Looking to explain the presence of maritime fossils on hilltops, he broke from contemporary explanations that either misidentified them as something entirely inorganic or tried to account for their location through a one-time event like the biblical deluge. In its place, he suggested a more gradual process like the type that occurs over years of sedimentary rock formation, and even laid out an incipient understanding of what we’d eventually call trace fossils. He realized, centuries before other scientists, that creatures had once burrowed their way through a soft sea bottom that had, over time, become rocky mountain top material.
Leonardo also thought the moon was covered in water, but hey, for just $30 million, not every idea is going to be a winner.
2. Most Expensive Painting: Salvator Mundi
Leonardo is also responsible for the most expensive painting ever sold at auction ... maybe. Salvator Mundi, which depicts Jesus Christ holding a crystal orb, sold in 1958 for just £45. After art speculators Robert Simon and Alexander Parrish bought it in 2005, though, they helped instigate a critical reevaluation of the piece that eventually convinced many experts that the piece was an original painting from Leonardo da Vinci. Some skeptics, like art critic Jerry Saltz and Renaissance specialist Charles Hope, pegged it as a likely copy. Others felt that Leonardo may well have played a legitimate role in its creation, but that extensive conservation efforts over the years muddied the painting’s value. In the end, their doubts proved no match for a more believing set of experts and the excesses of the art market: The piece sold in 2017 for $450 million, including buyer’s premium.
3. Most Expensive Sculpture: L’homme au doigt
The most expensive sculpture ever purchased is Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s L’homme au doigt, or “Man Pointing.” The piece was originally designed to include a second figure that the pointing man would have his arm around. That plan was scrapped, but it didn’t affect the piece’s eventual value: Decades later, hedge fund mogul Steve Cohen coughed up over $140 million to own the lonesome pointer, setting a record for a piece of sculpture sold at auction.
4. Most Expensive Professional Sports Team: The New York Mets
A hundred and forty million is chump change compared to another famous Cohen acquisition: The New York Mets. When he purchased the team in 2020 for $2.4 billion, it was the highest recorded purchase price for a professional sports team.
5. Most Expensive Empire: The Roman Empire
Calling it “the most expensive empire” ever might be a bit of a stretch, since it's unclear how many empires have been put on the open market, but the Roman Empire once sold at auction for 25,000 sesterces per soldier. The Praetorian Guard had killed the previous emperor, Pertinax. Didius Julianus was the highest bidder for the empire, and was briefly installed as the head of state. For his troubles, he received a prompt civil war and an eventual beheading.
6. Most Expensive Guns: George Washington's Pistols
The highest price for a single auction lot of guns belongs to George Washington’s set of saddle pistols, which were sold for nearly $2 million in 2002. The pistols were actually in Andrew Jackson’s possession for a number of years, but Hamilton lovers will especially appreciate their original source: They were a gift from everyone’s favorite fighting Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette.
7. Most Expensive Underwear: Queen Victoria's Underwear
Some of the most expensive underwear ever purchased once covered the royal cheeks of Queen Victoria. The royal underwear in question were embroidered with the initials VR, for Victoria Regina, and were especially prized because their noticeable alterations allowed royal enthusiasts to peg the undies to the last decade of the Queen’s life, when her shrinking stature necessitated a tailor’s intervention. The underpants went for a little over $16,000.
8. Most Expensive Kidney Stone: William Shatner's Kidney Stone
Even the considerable passion of royal fans pales in comparison to the fervor of Trekkies. That may be why, when William Shatner wanted to raise money for Habitat for Humanity, his passed kidney stone was able to fetch $25,000 from GoldenPalace.com. Amazingly, the online casino originally offered $15,000 but Shatner held out for more, because it’s important to know your own worth, and/or the worth of the small hard deposits produced by your renal system.
9. Most Expensive Hair: Elvis Presley's Hair
According to a federal indictment, a few months after that purchase, in April 2003, the same auction house sold more hair advertised as Elvis’s. After DNA testing, that second hair’s authenticity was called into question. The auction house refunded the purchase and then, according to the indictment, resold it, causing “false representations and material omissions to be made ... concerning the authenticity of the Purported Elvis Hair.” For this and other issues, the Chairman of the auction house was sentenced to 20 months in prison.
The veracity of the November 2002 purchase doesn't appear to have been questioned, and the April 2003 purchase isn’t necessarily faux Elvis hair—it’s just a matter of contention.
10. Most Expensive Beetle: A Stag Beetle
The world’s most expensive beetle—non-John/Paul/Ringo/George category—was a 3-inch Stag Beetle sold in Japan for $89,000.
11. Most Expensive Typewriter: Cormac McCarthy's Typewriter
Some of the earliest typewriters featured hand-engraved letters; one sold for over $140,000 back in 2019, but that’s not the most expensive typewriter ever purchased. That distinction may belong to Cormac McCarthy’s light blue Olivetti Lettera 32, which sold for over a quarter of a million dollars in 2009.
12. Most Expensive Comic Book: Action Comics No. 1
13. Most Expensive Coin: The 1933 Double Eagle Coin
One of the world’s most expensive coins took a winding path to the auction block. It begins with Theodore Roosevelt, who, in late 1904, labeled the United States’s existing coinage “artistically of atrocious hideousness.” The Colonel’s coin complaint eventually led to, among other things, the $20 double eagle coin designed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. With TR’s support, the phrase In God We Trust was left off the initial design.
Twenty-four “Ultra High Relief” pieces were struck as models for the coins in a labor-intensive process, and a variety of gold coins eventually ended up in circulation. Then, in 1933, Theodore’s distant cousin (and then the President of the United States) Franklin issued an executive order with an eye towards ending the general bank crisis. It stipulated that citizens were required to turn many gold coins into the government.
While production of the gold double-eagle coins was eventually halted, some of the 1933 Double Eagles did secretly make their way out of the mint. Federal agents tracked down and destroyed nine of the 10 then-known copies in the wild, with the lone outlier belonging, by the mid-1940s, to King Farouk of Egypt (who also collected old razor blades and antique aspirin bottles). In 1944, Farouk’s representatives were awarded an export license for the coin, despite the fact that it technically should have been considered contraband stolen from the U.S. mint.
It’s believed that Farouk’s coin eventually ended up in the hands of Stephen Fenton, a British coin dealer. When he brought it to New York City to sell it in 1996, he was busted in a sting operation carried out by the Secret Service. The coin was seized and Fenton was arrested.
After a lengthy legal battle, it was determined that the export license meant the United States government had made an out-of-court deal to sell the coin and split the proceeds, and for a mere $20—its face value—would even monetize the coin. Including auction house fees and that $20, the coin sold for around $7.6 million in 2002, the highest auction price for any coin at the time.
After that sale, the record was surpassed on a couple of occasions, including a record $10 million purchase price for one of the first—if not the very first—silver dollars ever struck by the U.S. mint, a so-called “Flowing Hair” dollar. But in June 2021, the Double Eagle went up for auction again and sold for $18.9 million.
14. Most Expensive Stamp: The 1-Cent Magenta
A pricey piece of postage was actually at that same auction. An 1856 stamp from then-British Guiana has set four separate sales records in transactions over the years—and like many of the objects on this list, it derives its value from a combination of rarity and a great story.
In 1855, the local postmaster of British Guiana was expecting a shipment of 50,000 1-cent and 4-cent stamps from Great Britain. When only 5000 of each arrived, he eventually had to improvise, enlisting the local newspaper’s printing press to create a limited-edition stopgap stamp in 1 and 4 cent values. The 1-cent versions were used for newspapers, and therefore especially likely to have been promptly discarded.
In fact, just a single copy of the 1-cent Magenta has trotted the globe in the decades since, including a period when it was part of the collection of one of the most renowned stamp collectors of all time, Philipp de la Rénotière von Ferrar. The stamp also played a role in a diplomatic tussle between France and Germany and was sold in 2014 for $9.5 million from the estate of chemical company heir and convicted murderer John E. du Pont. It then sold for $8.3 million at the June 2021 auction and is still the most valuable stamp in the world.
15. Most Expensive Album: The Wu-Tang Clan's Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
The world’s most expensive album may not have gone for that much, at least compared to other items on this list, but it’s still worth mentioning: The only copy of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was sold to pharmaceuticals executive Martin Shkreli for $2 million. After Shkreli was convicted of securities fraud in 2017, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was reportedly seized by the Feds. No word on if they gave it a spin, though.