Next week Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips will hold photography auctions in New York, where original prints by some of the most famous and influential artists of the 20th century will be available for purchase. Beyond the quality of the material—there are some stunning examples of early photographs from Karl Struss and Heinrich Kühn— the auctions are notable for being remarkably, improbably, cheap.
Cheap, of course, is relative.
At the end of the day, these are decorative pieces of paper that carry $250,000, $350,000, and $500,000 high estimates—for that price you could get a well-appointed three-bedroom cottage in the Hudson Valley. But compare work by the late 19th and early 20th century photographic giants, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston with their peers who work in other mediums and the difference is striking. Ansel Adams, the fifth most successful photographer at auction, ever, has had his photographs go to auction 3,171 times for a total of $57 million, according to Artnet Analytics. That is, for context, a little more than a third of what a single sculpture by Alberto Giacometti sold for last May.
Part of the disparity is cultural. “There’s still a lingering bias against photography because of its reproducibility,” says Drew Sawyer, a curator of photography at the Columbus Museum of Art. And part of it is due to the way that photographs were printed for the first 150 years that the medium existed: Through the 1970s, many photographs weren’t editioned. Whereas a print run of Picasso etchings would be labeled 1/100 and so on, such photographers as Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange often simply printed as many as they wanted, occasionally failing even to date the finished photographs.
As a result, when it comes to buying photographs at auction, “it takes a trained eye, someone more knowledgeable about the market, to feel comfortable collecting,” says Sawyer. A painting by Joan Miró is judged by its condition, provenance, and aesthetic merits, whereas a photograph by László Moholy-Nagy is judged on that and more—whether it was printed in the artist’s lifetime, how soon after the negative was developed the print was produced, how many other photographs from the negative are in existence, and so on. That uncertainty has helped keep prices down.
There are some obvious exceptions: Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky, Wolfgang Tillmans, and others sell for hundreds of thousands (and occasionally millions) of dollars. Those photographers (whose work is editioned) sell primarily in contemporary art auctions rather than photography auctions. They're photographers, certainly, but they are treated as though they are in a different category.
All this adds up to lackluster demand, even as the rest of the 20th century art market has skyrocketed. Compare the two charts below. The first is the average price of every work from the Impressionist, modern, post-war, and contemporary art markets. (The average is derived from Artnet's annual totals of art sold, divided by the total number of objects sold.) The numbers are less dazzling than those hundred-million dollar auction sales, but they provide a deeper sense of how the overall art market has fared. Things go gangbusters until 2007, prices and volume plummet from 2008-09, and then there's a recovery, which accelerates into the present.
Next, we can look at photography's average, using the same formula of taking annual totals and dividing them by annual number of lots sold. It follows the same trajectory, initially: upswing until 2007, sharp correction, and gradual recovery—but compared with the chart above, the drop is more precipitous, the recovery slower, and there's another sharp drop from 2014 to 2015. (There haven't been major photography auctions yet this year, however. That drop could be corrected by next week's auctions.)
Of course, not every artist follows the overall trends of the rest of the market. What about photography's superstars? Let's look at the three artists who account for the top lots of next week's auctions:
Ansel Adams, whose photograph of Yosemite National Park carries a high estimate of $500,000 at Christie's. Here's his average price over the past decade:
Irving Penn, whose photograph of gingko leaves also carries a high estimate of $500,000 at Christie's:
And Robert Mapplethorpe, whose striking and (very) NSFW photograph of a man's suit and genitalia carries a high estimate of $350,000 at Sotheby's:
Not exactly stellar performance, yet these photographers are, without hyperbole, some of the most important artists of the past 100 years. Sure, the lots are a lot of money, but once collectors begin to catch on to the bear market it's probable that the photos will soon be worth a lot more. The fall photography auctions will tell us whether this will continue to be a great time to invest in this undervalued art form.