The top-selling photographs… not necessarily by photographers


The past 20 years has seen a profound change in the art photography market, particularly in economic terms with the segment’s total auction turnover rising from $16 million for just over 3,000 photos to about $130 million in 2016 (in the West). Although photography represents a fraction of global Fine Art auction turnover (roughly 2%) it is still a dynamic market attracting strong demand from Contemporary art collectors, particularly in the West.

In terms of the segment’s rankings, the top-selling signatures have seen substantial changes with the prices for works by Contemporary artists catching up with and then overtaking those of Old and Modern photographs. In fact, in the Contemporary category, the term “artist-photographer” seems more appropriate than “photographer” since many artists explore photography in the same way they explore other creative media. For a number of artists, photography is often a means rather than an end in itself and they are not necessarily photographers per se. This is precisely the case of one of the latest arrivals in the Top-10 auction results for photography, AI Weiwei, who is, better known, a priori, for his work in other creative media. Ai Weiwei – China’s most popular artist in the West – has had a particularly unusual and militant artistic career. In 2016 he earned his first million-plus result in the photography medium with Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, a photographic triptych from a 1995 art performance in which he lets a 2000-year old Han dynasty vase slip from his hands and smash on the ground. In an act that he describes as ‘liberating’, Ai Weiwei “drops” the past, breaks with cultural heritage, questioning the value placed on art and history in contemporary societies. The work, both large (136 x 109 cm) and rare (only 8 copies) was expected to fetch between $200,000 and $300,000 at Sotheby’s London in February 2016, but finally sold for $1.08 million. Its value multiplied tenfold in just ten years as Ai Weiwei’s prices and popularity rocketed. A number of less iconic photographs by Ai Weiwei still circulate for less than $1,000, because photography is essentially a two-tier market with affordable works on the one hand and million-dollar works on the other.

But the most expensive artists on the photography market are American, carried by the strength of the New York marketplace and rich collectors who privilege their fellow countrymen first and foremost. Although the famous American photographer Cindy SHERMAN was relatively discreet on the secondary market in 2016 (her price index has been steadily contracting since its peak in 2012 when she benefited from a major retrospective at the MoMA), her auction record still stands at more than $6.7 million (Christie’s New York 12 November 2014) for a series of 21 silver prints from her series « Untitled Film Stills » (i.e. an average of $319,000 for each print). Sixteen of Sherman’s photographs have sold above the million-dollar line over the last ten years, including one last year (Untitled #216, 1989 4/6, Sotheby’s New York, 17 November 2016). However, the big winner in 2016 was undoubtedly Richard PRINCE who is more of an “appropriator of photographs” than an “photographer” and who generated the top five auction results in the 2016 Top-10. While no new record was hammered for America’s favorite photographer in 2016, his superb ektachrome Untitled (Cowboy) sold for $3.525 million on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in New York, but that was still $400,000 behind the $4 million paid for his Spiritual America in May 2014 at the same auctioneer … prices that are in any case substantially higher than those paid for photographs by the 19th century pioneers of the medium.

While today’s market gives priority to fashionable Contemporary artists, this is not just for cultural or economic reasons; there is a more structural reason, namely the increasing rarity of “historical” photographs compared with the profusion of more recent photographs.