The Secrets of Two Master Photo Collectors

It's a tough way to get rich. But you can find fascinating stuff, and at a good price. Here's advice from two of the tops in the field

By Thane Peterson

As recently as the 1970s, photography wasn't deemed an art-form worthy of the attention of serious collectors. The big reason: With painting and sculpture, there's only one genuine work. With photos, often dozens -- or even hundreds -- of copies can be made of any given photographic print.

In the last two decades, however, photography collecting has come into its own. Gradually, a rationale has developed for determining which of the often numerous prints available of a given photo is the most desirable. And in the last few years, the price of vintage photos has started to soar. The rarest prints now go for $500,000 to $1 million. Among the passionate collectors giving the hobby cachet is rocker Elton John, who has assembled a major photo collection.

This is a hobby that just about anyone can get into. Vintage prints by name photographers can cost $3,000 or better. But some 19th century visiting cards and postal cards can still be had for a few hundred dollars. And even many wealthy collectors also collect snapshots, which can often be found at antique shows and flea markets for a few dollars.

For a story I wrote about photo collecting for BusinessWeek (see BW, 4/30/01, "There's Still Time to Snap Up Great Photos"), I spoke with two of the most important photo collectors in the world: Michael Wilson of London and Paul Sack, a San Francisco real estate developer. Here are edited excerpts from my conversations with both, first Wilson, and then Sack.

Michael Wilson is the stepson of the legendary movie producer Albert (Cubby) Broccoli, who produced most of the James Bond movies. Late in his life Broccoli, who died in 1996 at age 87, began to turn over more and more responsibility for the movies to his daughter Barbara Broccoli and Wilson, who is her half-brother. The pair has been credited as the producers of every James Bond movie since 1995's Goldeneye.

In the meantime, Wilson, who divides his time between London and Los Angeles, has amassed one of the world's most important private photography collections. His focus is the first three decades after the invention of photography in the mid-19th century. The main part of the collection contains about 7,000 vintage photos and 300 photo albums, all documented and entered in a data base.

But Wilson also owns some 5,000 early ethnological photos and 10,000 small prints, mainly on visiting and postal cards. He has his own curator and two curatorial assistants. At any given time, he usually has two or three shows traveling around the U.S. on the museum circuit and 200 to 300 photos on loan to museums for use in their show.

Q: Based on what you know now, what would be your advice to those who want to get started in collecting photos?


It's exceedingly hard to give anyone advice on collecting art. There's no right way or wrong way. But, contrary to almost all the other advice you'll usually hear about collecting, I would advise people to buy photos they don't like.

The reason is that people are very used to seeing photography in magazines and on billboards. The point of that photography is always to arrest your attention immediately. When most people go to look at art photography for the first time, they tend to immediately gravitate toward those [kinds of] pictures. But if they were to take those photos home and live with them for awhile, they'd realize that those pictures don't have the sort of mystery and ambiguity that a work of art needs to last. A lot of the contemporary photography sold in galleries is just like that.

Unfortunately, it can cost you quite a bit of money to learn that lesson. What you need to do if you're starting out in collecting is find yourself a good dealer. Very often, a dealer will let you borrow a photo and take it home and live with it, to try it out. I think most people will find that their first impulses do not last. I used to collect etchings and engravings as a young man living in New York. I still have drawers of them that are entirely worthless. It takes awhile for your eye to get developed.

Q: You've said that photo prices have risen very high and that forces collectors to go into new areas or to re-evaluate their style of collecting. Has that happened to you in recent years?


I certainly haven't been buying as much. I've been buying very critically to fill gaps [in my collection]. I've moved more toward some 20th century materials because the 19th century is getting so scarce and difficult. But I always have several areas of interest I'm pursuing. We're going to do a show on 19th century enthnography in about a year-and-a-half that will tour the U.S. So, I'm looking in that area.

Q: And you wouldn't advise people to buy photography as an investment?


No. It's usually a bad idea.

Q: What do you plan to do with the collection. Do you plan to give it to a museum at some point?



Q: I guess that's a question no one wants to answer because it has overtones of mortality...


Well, I was giving a talk about collecting not long ago at the Getty Museum. One of the questions is always, Should people invest in photography? I said, "There's a big difference. An investor always has an exit strategy. A collector doesn't -- at least not until it's forced upon him."


Paul Sack is a San Francisco real estate investor who first got into photo collecting in 1987 as a way to decorate the wall of his company's offices. He initially hired a consultant to help him decide what to buy but quickly discovered that "I just loved photography." Before long, he was on his way to building one of the most important U.S. collections.

In 1999, he and his wife, Prentice, donated the collection, which then numbered about 1,000 items, to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It's an innovative arrangement that allows him to continue to share the collection with the museum during his lifetime. Since then, he has bought 200 more photos that will also eventually go to the museum.

Q: Why do people pay so much for photos? If there's a photographic negative still in existence, nobody knows for sure how many copies there might be of the image.


I think that's why people buy vintage prints. They are rarer, and there are some limits on the number of prints out there. But the major reason people buy vintage prints is that they look different. Materials have changed. There was more silver in the paper [before World War II], for one thing. The idea is that to get a print that reflects the concepts of the photographer at the time the shutter was clicked.

Q: What would be your first piece of advice for beginning collectors?


Collect vintage pictures if you can afford them. There are three stages: a vintage print made by the photographer, a later print made by the photographer, and then there are posthumous prints or prints made when the photographer was very old, supposedly under the photographer's supervision. You want to avoid the posthumous prints. They have no connection with the photographer. Later prints are more common and don't look as good.

Q: Do you recommend finding a good dealer?


Not a good dealer. Several good dealers.

Q: Have you ever bought any forgeries?


I have. I've bought three that I know of. If I've bought any others, I don't know about it yet. I bought three of prints that were supposedly signed by Lewis Hine. They turned out to be fakes. The dealer took them back and gave me full credit. It's buyer beware. You should always hope for the best, fear the worst, and protect yourself.

Q: Prices of vintage photos have gone way up in recent years. What do you do about that?


It forces you to raise your budget. Every year, I spend two times my budget or three times my budget.

Q: And you have a rule that in each photo in your collection, there must somewhere be a building that your firm could have owned or leased?


Yes. But I define that very loosely. I'm looking at one the photos in my collection as we speak. It's a vintage print by Harry Callahan of his wife Eleanor and their daughter in front of a big open space where a lot of yachts are moored on buoys. There's a building along the horizon, on the left side of the picture. Only I would notice the building, but that's enough for me.

Q: Are there conservation problems with color prints?


It's getting better. But I only buy black-and-white prints. Someone once told me one of the museums keep their color prints actually frozen so if you want to look at one of them you have to give 72 hours notice so they can thaw it out. I'm not equipped to do that, and it's not the way I want to look at my pictures. I figure there are so many black-and-white pictures to collect, why should I fool around with color?

Q: You also only collect photos from before 1975? Why is that?


Two reasons. My collection is about the history of photography, and I really don't know what the history will be after 1975 -- which photographers will turn out to be important. Secondly, after 1975, photography became much more conceptual. I'm a linear thinker.

Q: How do you educate yourself about photography?


You read a lot. For example, I just bought an early picture by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Before I bought it, I got out the book by Peter Galassi of the Museum of Modern Art on a Cartier-Bresson show he [curated] in the 1980s and read the essay. After that, I felt I knew a lot more about early Cartier-Bresson.

Q: Which one did you buy?


[Laughs.] He took a picture across his feet [while he was lying on a chaise longue]. And above the end of his feet you could see a few buildings, fortunately, and a man walking along. It's just a wonderful picture. No one had ever taken [an art photo] like that before. It seemed a little surreal. It made people think about snapshots differently.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht