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What Makes a Photograph Expensive?

May 18, 2016

 The top 20 most expensive photographs sold at auction, as of May 16, 2016. Table by the author.


Depending upon whom you believe, the most expensive photograph ever sold is either Peter Lik’s Phantom or Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II.  Lik claims he sold his photo for $6.5 million in 2015, but no one has been able to independently confirm the sale. At public auction, the highest price ever paid for a Lik photograph was $15,860, so a healthy dose of skepticism seems appropriate.


Gursky, on the other hand, is one of the most famous fine art photographers in the world. He has a long track record of public sales for his giant prints, and no one doubts his credibility and marketability. In 2011 a print of his Rhein II sold at Christie’s in New York for $4.34 million. This stands as the verifiable most expensive photograph in the world so far.


What drives a collector to pay a sky-high price for what in most cases is not even a one-of-a-kind work of art? In Gursky's case there are five other prints of the same image, although all of the others are smaller. However, all but one of them are in museum collections, which means they must be real art. It's true that Gursky has an unmistakable style and presence in his work that demands attention, and collectors see those qualities as both visually compelling and investment-worthy. In 2007 his 99 Cent II Diptychon was the first photograph to sell for more than $3 million.


At the same time, Gursky is not alone as a current photographer who commands high prices. Cindy Sherman holds down 6 slots in the list of the 20 most expensive photographs ever sold. Sherman's Untitled #96 sold for $3.89 million in 2011 and her other 5 prints sold for a combined total of nearly $13 million.  And Richard Prince, whom some say should not be called a photographer since he "re-imagines" other people's work, has had two prints sell for a combined $7 million.


Critics have long debated what makes certain artists so special that they command seemingly exorbitant prices for their work. There is an almost unlimited volume of analysis, criticism, review, and speculation, and there is little agreement on what that "special something" is. We know it when we see it, or at least people with money say they do, and that's all that needs to be said.


Now, however, someone claims to have found an objective yardstick for an artist's "value". Yi Zhou, a professor of finance at Florida State University, recently published an academic paper entitled Narcissism and the Art Market Performance. Zhou's study is only about painters – one of the data sets she used was the overall size of an artist's signature – but using what she claims are objective statistics for their work she found that "there is a positive and significant relationship between an artist's narcissism and the artist's creativity and productivity".


Narcissistic artists were found to have higher market prices, more museum shows, and more recognition in the art world. To me this begs the question: which came first? Does being narcissistic lead to your work becoming more valuable, or do you become more narcissistic as your work increases in value? I see another research paper in the future.


There's also the question of whether highly successful photographers approach the same level or kind of narcissism as painters. It might be easy to argue that they do when confronted with Cindy Sherman's unrelenting portrayals of herself, but there are literally billions of selfies taken every year and 99.9999% of the photographers will never be famous.


Of course, narcissism wasn’t born with the current selfie trend. In 1961 Italian artist Piero Manzoni claimed he filled 90 tin cans with his own excrement, then labeled, signed and numbered the cans. There is some controversy about what is actually in the tins, but that only appears to have increased the value of the works. In 2015 a single can, appropriately named Artist’s Shit, sold for $201,192 at Christie’s London. One can easily imagine the artist intending to make fun of narcissism by creating such a piece in the first place; what the recent buyer valued by paying more than $6,700 per gram of alleged shit is another issue altogether.


In the end, nothing tops unadulterated desire for assigning a value to something. It's obvious that in the current market really big photos often command really big prices. But overall size is only one way of looking at perceived value. Perhaps another consideration might be quality rather than quantity. Who packs the most value into the least amount of space?


Billy the Kid, by an unknown photographer.

Sold at auction in 2015 for $2.3 million,

or $383,333 per square inch

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


It’s interesting that the clear winner in terms of real estate is an unknown photographer. A tiny 2” x 3” tintype of an authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid sold in 2011 for $2.3 million, or a breathtaking $383,333 per square inch. The buyer: David Koch, of the infamous Koch brothers empire, and a fanatical collector of Western memorabilia. All that mattered to Koch was that the person in the photo was perhaps the most famous western outlaw of all, and, I’m guessing, that he would own something no one else has.


If you view this image as an outlier because of the subject, then it's worthwhile to note that when it comes to known photographers small vintage prints occupy much more valuable real estate than giant newer ones.  At approximately 6" x 9", Edward Weston's Nude (1925), which sold for $1.6 million in 2008, realized $30,682 per square inch. By comparison, Rhein II cost a mere $416 per square inch, and Richard Prince's Spiritual America sold for "only" $8,277 per square inch. Quality may or may not trump quantity, but the mystique of the past is a definite multiplier.


Perhaps the real value of a given photograph or other work of art is as Georgia O'Keeffe said: “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.” No matter how much science might try to tell us otherwise it is often the lure of an artist's inscrutable known that makes us want their work, regardless of its price.


Tim Greyhavens

May, 2016

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