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What Makes This Photo Worth $4 Million

An art advisor explains a very specialized market for conceptual art.
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What Makes a Photo Worth $4 Million?

Artist Cindy Sherman burst on the scene in the late 1970s with her "Untitled Film Stills," a series of photographs of faked publicity shots from unspecified movies. They weren’t just photographs. They were part of what eventually became understood as a conceptual art practice. By inhabiting and almost overselling these cultural stereotypes of women—damsel in distress, dotty housewife, bombshell—Sherman effectively undermined the very cliches she set out to reproduce.

For 40 years, Sherman has continued to create variations on this theme. The subject of her art is always herself, and she’s always in some form of costume. The trope has become wildly successful, both critically and commercially: Sherman is one of the top-selling contemporary artists alive on the planet, and a photograph from 1981, Untitled #96, ranked as the third-most-expensive photograph ever to sell at auction when it fetched $3.9 million at Christie’s in 2011.