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Highest selling photographs of the year


Discover the best sales every Friday! Every other Friday Artprice posts a theme-based auction ranking. This week sees the opening of Paris Photo, which celebrates its 20th anniversary from 10 to 13 November. We take this opportunity to reveal the ten highest-selling photographs of 2016.

Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Richard PRINCE (1949) 3,525,000$ Untitled (Cowboy) 2016-05-10 Christie’s New York
2 Richard PRINCE (1949) 2,853,000$ Untitled (Fashion) 2016-05-10 Christie’s New York
3 Richard PRINCE (1949) 2,405,000$ Untitled (Fashion) 2016-05-10 Christie’s New York
4 AI Weiwei (1957) 1,089,993$ Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 2016-02-10 Sotheby’s Londres
5 Richard PRINCE (1949) 967,500$ Untitled (Cowboy) 2016-09-28 Christie’s New York
6 Gustave LE GRAY (1820-1884) 965,000$ Bateaux quittant le port du Havre (navires de la flotte de Napoleon III) 2016-02-17 Christie’s New York
7 Richard PRINCE (1949) 965,000$ Untitled (Cowboy) 2016-05-11 Christie’s New York
8 Thomas STRUTH (1954) 779,272$ « Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago » 2016-11-03 Phillips Londres
9 Helmut NEWTON (1920-2004) 670,000$ « Sie Kommen (Dressed)’ and ‘SIE Kommen (Naked) » 2016-04-03 Sotheby’s New York
10 GILBERT & GEORGE (XX-XXI) 670,000$ Day, 1978 2016-10-05 Phillips New York

Who are the most sought after photographers in the world? In 20 years, the world ranking has been turned upside down, as the prices of old and modern photographs were equalled, then surpassed, by those of contemporary artists. In the mid 1990s, the highest prices were fetched by Edward Curtis, Man Ray, André Kertesz and Gustave Le Gray, with records set between $300,000 and $800,000 on average. Then came the explosion of contemporary art at auction in the early 2000s which brought to the fore other photographers who became highly sought after in London and New York salerooms: Andreas Gursky, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and Gilbert & George have consistently attained high price levels, including a million dollar record, almost hitting the $10m threshold for a single photograph (with the sale of The New Jeff Koons (1980) by Jeff Koons for $9.4 million in May 2014 at Sotheby’s in New York).

Global sales have skyrocketed over the last 20 years, from $16 million for a little more 3,000 photographs sold at auction, to $150.8m in 2015, as actual sales have multiplied by five. If photography accounts for 1% to 2% of the global sales of Fine Art, a relatively small percentage, it is a dynamic market driven by the appetite of collectors for contemporary art in the West. Photography from the second half of the 20th century is now recognised as the most profitable, with a turnover of $36.5m achieved in the first half of 2016, versus $19.2m for modern photographic prints, a little under $15 million for the post-war period and only $2.5m for photographs of the 19th century.

This ranking reflects these trends perfectly, with new contemporary works reaching the top prices, against a single historical photograph, that of Ships leaving the port of Le Havre (1856-1857) by Gustave Le Gray.

Richard Prince is streets ahead

It’s not really a surprise to see Richard Prince so far ahead: he takes up half the ranking with the first three places being multimillion dollar sales. However, the great favourite of American photography (with Cindy Sherman although she is not listed in these annual results) does not reach a new record. The great photographCowboy sold for $3.525m on May 10th at Christie’s in New York but remains $400,000 behindSpiritual America which sold for $4m in May 2014 at the same auction house. Remember that this particular photograph, Spiritual Americaoriginally created a huge scandal: based on a 1975 photograph taken by Garry Gross of Brooke Shields at the age of 10, who was photographed naked, standing in a bath and made up in a seductive way. The work was censored several times, notably during the exhibition Présumés innocents in 2000 (in Bordeaux) and nine years later at the exhibition Pop Life at the Tate Modern (London).

Richard Prince is one of the leading figures in the current market: the sale of his paintings, in addition to his photographs, has lifted him to 4th place in the most successful artists in the world at auction in the last Artprice report on the contemporary art market published in October 2016. The sale of 69 of his works between summer 2015 and summer 2016 indeed generated $55.8m, better than Peter Doig and even Keith Haring over 12 months.

The first million dollar sale for Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is a rebellious artist, who, has become the most popular Chinese artist in the West thanks to his ability to provoke and his politically committed artistic career. Iconoclastic and rebellious, he attained this year his first million dollar sale in photography, while several of his sculptures and installations have already been sold for more than price over the last two years. The photograph in question is Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, a photographic triptych of a performance in 1995. The triptych decomposes one single movement, in which the artist drops a 2,000 year old vase of the Han Dynasty onto the ground. In this gesture he deems liberating, Ai Weiwei « lets go » of the past, and breaks with his cultural heritage, questioning the value placed on art and history in our societies. The work, both important for its size (136 cm x 109 cm) and rare (only 8 copies exist), was expected to reach between $200,000 and $300,000 but finally skyrocketed to $1.08m in February 2016 at Sotheby’s in London. Its value has multiplied by 10 in 10 years, in line with the artist’s explosive market value and popularity.

Some less iconic photographs by Ai Weiwei still circulate for less than $1,000, because photography is a two-tier market; with affordable items alongside million dollar works. With a budget of $5000, enthusiastic collectors have access to more than 75% of the works available worldwide. With this budget, it is even possible to buy works by the great American artist Cindy SHERMAN, the ultimate record for her work being more than $6.7m for a series of 21 gelatin silver prints of her famous series Untitled Film Stills (sold at Christie’s New York, on 12th, November 2014).

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