Art market

Sales results provide reinforcing evidence that the field of photography and its market remain steadfast and financially solid

“Traditional notions of composition and beauty do very well”

The March sale of the Jammes sale (see p.41) was another benchmark event, racking up over £7 million ($10 million) and further underlining the growing interest in early photography. It followed on from on the hugely successful first Jammes sale in 1999, which set the still-unchallenged auction record for a photograph (£507,500, $840,370 for a Le Gray seascape). In the galleries, the $1 million barrier was breached two years ago, with the sale of Man Ray’s “Glass tears” to John A. Pritzker.

In last month’s round of New York sales, Phillips achieved $607,500 for Paul Strand’s “Mullein, Maine”, a vintage platinum print dating from 1927. While the other sales presented a patchy, picky picture, great pieces are still achieving great prices. And if photography is down from its peak in 1999, the field remains financially solid, according to the Comparative Auction Index (a feature of the Photograph Collector newsletter). The Index currently stands at 18,122 versus 9,348 for the Dow Jones (more information from

A move to early photography

A recent development is the increasing popularity of 19th-century works, especially pre-1860 photography, even among collectors of 20th century. Leading dealer Howard Greenberg notes: “For 19th century, it is a bit more of a connoisseur’s market. It’s smaller but also one that is very active, and has been so particularly in the last four to five years, because a lot of major museum collections discovered that they had good depth in the 20th century, but not such good depth in 19th century. A lot of 20th-century collectors felt as though they had come close to completing what they wanted to do with the 20th century, and became aware of 19th century. But it is difficult to find high quality pieces.”

Hans Kraus, long-time dealer in pre-1860 photography says, “There has certainly been more interest recently in the 19th century, and the Jammes sales have served to focus a lot of attention on this, since that has been some of the most respected material to come on the market in recent years. It’s afforded people an opportunity to see marvellous things, and to acquire them.”

Art galleries turn to vintage 20th century

Vintage 20th-century photography is increasingly visible in contemporary art galleries. In New York, Andrea Rosen has shown Walker Evans, and Marianne Boesky has formed, with Marla Hamburg Kennedy, Kennedy Boesky photographs, which is dedicated to vintage to contemporary photography; they recently closed a show of Leni Riefenstahl. Photography dealers look on this development as inevitable. The galleries see photography as an untapped resource, and collectors of contemporary art have a natural interest in photography, given its centrality to 20th-century visual culture–not to mention the preponderance of young artists working with it these days.

Twentieth-century photographs have been an increasingly hot commodity since the late 1970s, when, for instance, Ansel Adams prints started selling for remarkable prices. As Adams and his dealers came up with a pricing strategy based on prints in an edition, the modern photography market for photographs made after that point was born.

Collectors from other fields such as painting and sculpture started coming in later, “as prices started going up, and they realised that work in their mediums was skyrocketing, some of them turned their attention to photography, because prices were lower and they could get great things,” says dealer Jill Quasha, although she notes there are not many of these crossover collectors.

Contemporary photography is, of course, a very different story, an expanded field that includes large-scale colour work such as that of Andreas Gursky and the other Düsseldorf school artists, as well as photographers such as Cindy Sherman, and which is sold mainly in contemporary art galleries. This work is largely outside the scope of this article.

Scarcity: an increasing issue

Another factor that is driving the photography market is scarcity. This seems to hold for 19th- and 20th-century material alike, at least in terms of quality vintage prints prior to around 1960. Before selling his outstanding collection of 19th-century photographs—by the likes of Cameron, Le Gray, Marville and others—at Sotheby’s last May, Paul Walter observed that someone wanting to put together such a collection these days would be hard pressed to find the material, and would then have to pay outrageous prices for it. Some dealers, such as Howard Greenberg, remain sanguine; “slowly but surely, a lot of good material has been taken off the market,...but I think a lot of high quality vintage photography still gets circulated. There's no doubt that it's diminishing, but it hasn't diminished to the point of ‘it's time to leave the market.’”

Other dealers are quick to address the scarcity issue, and how it is affecting the market. According to Ms Morthland, “We’re in an odd phase right now because…there is a scarcity of material coming on the market and people are beginning to sell and buy vintage photographs that, 10 years ago, they would have passed by as being prints of inferior quality, and now, if they are the only ones left by a particular artist, they are selling for quite high prices…it’s difficult to find [good vintage material] prior to 1960. The 1950s material, such as Robert Frank and Louis Faurer, is becoming very scarce, even prints that they made later. The same is true of André Kertész, whose modern prints are increasing in value. Something like his “Washington Square Park”, which you used to be able to get a later print of by calling any number of dealers, all of a sudden is a scarcity so we’re not even talking vintage prints anymore, we’re talking about prints made by the photographers 20, 30, 40 years later, which used to be the area that the beginning collector market could tap into. Now those prints that are becoming equally scarce.” (Dealers almost unanimously dismiss posthumous, or estate, prints as virtually worthless, other than for decorative or illustrative purposes.) This kind of scarcity drives the prices of quality prints from five to six figures, and effectively prices many collectors out of the market.

What makes the value of a photograph?

Condition, rarity and provenances (as in all areas of the art market), will make huge differences to the price. Boston-based dealer and Association of International Photography Art Dealers’ (AIPAD) president Robert Klein says, “The [photographs] that conform to traditional notions of composition and beauty do extremely well,” even if they are very early. Good condition is essential, although rarity can affect this.

Speaking for pre-1860 works, Hans Kraus observes, “People are primarily image-driven, but after that they really need to be convinced by the condition of the object, and certainly the historical nature of it helps as well.”

Other elements influencing the price are, for early photographs, the support: salt prints (which have a more velvety tone) are more valuable than albumen prints, and prints from paper are more valuable than those from glass negatives. All the Le Gray seascapes, the gold standard of the market, are made from glass negatives. Again, for early photographs, owning the negative significantly enhances the value of a print. In the Jammes sale, three negatives made over E100,000 (£61,000; $85,400) each.

Market facts: some major players

o Museums: American museums have been collecting strongly in the last two decades. The crucial event came in 1984 when the Getty plunged into the market by buying a number of key private collections, including Sam Wagstaff’s, and material from the Jammes collection. Other museums had already been collecting more quietly for decades before; MoMA was the first to dedicate a separate department to photography, which before was generally part of the books or prints section. Other institutions in the US such as the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the National Gallery of Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have significant and growing collections.

o A key figure: A major player in the last few years has been Sheikh al-Thani of Qatar; he has pushed prices to quite astonishing levels, including the world record for the Le Gray seascape. He has also spent $12 million on Werner Bokelberg's collection and last year bought the Earl of Craven’s archive at Bearne’s for £5560,512. These are all to be displayed in a museum of photography due to open next year.

o Curiously, considering its interest in photography and cameras, Japan is not a player in this market. A sudden burst of enthusiastic but ill-considered buying during the late 1980s “bubble”, and which led to the establishment of the now troubled Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Tokyo, has not been followed by more sustained activity. The project for a museum in Germany with which Manfred Heiting was involved (see The Art Newspaper, No. 95, September 1999, p.29), has been aborted and his collection of over 3,500 images, spanning 1840-2000, has been bought by Houston for a price thought to be over $20 million.

oMain fairs:“The Photography Show” sponsored by AIPAD, takes place annually in February, at New York’s Hilton Hotel, and recently held its 22nd edition. It is the oldest, and, with 88 international dealers in top quality material ranging from rare 19th-century, to vintage 20th-century, to contemporary, it is undoubtedly the most prestigious photography fair in the world. Many of the leading dealers belong to AIPAD and their names are listed on its website

o Paris Photo: This fair sits at the heart of a month-long programme of photography-related events in Paris every November. It was recently sold to Reed-OIP (which also organises the Paris contemporary art fair FIAC) but will continue to be run by its founder Rik Gadella. This year it will be held at Le Carrousel du Louvre, 99 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, from 13 to 17 November, with 100 exhibitors. Website

o Website: For information about auctions and the market in general there is a wealth of information available on

A brief glossary

o Albumen print

This process, using egg whites, was in use between 1850 and 1900; the prints were often rather brownish and are not as expensive as salt prints. They are also somewhat fragile, and have to be mounted on card; often mounted in albums.

o Calotype

Introduced by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839, these prints from waxed paper negatives were used for about a decade, when they were replaced by albumen.

o Contact print

All early photographs were contact prints and they have great sharpness of detail; the print is the same size as the negative: enlarging only became possible in the 1890s.

o Daguerrotype

A photograph made by Daguerre’s process published in 1839. Each is unique and permanent. Went out of fashion in the 1850s.

o Gelatin silver print

A black and white photograph printed on paper coated with gelatin and silver.

o Photogravure

High-quality photomechanical reproduction process, based on printmaking techniques. Copper plate coated with light-sensitive gelatin film, exposed to negative and etched, renders continuous tones of a photograph with added surface relief.

o Salt print

These are made on fine quality paper, coated with light-sensitive chemicals. The tones are generally brown and purple, and the prints have a velvety matt surface quality.

o Signature

Signatures were the exception rather than the rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries. From the mid-20th century on, most photographers have signed their work.

o Vintage/old/modern/later prints

A vintage photograph refers to an artist’s first printing of a negative, and this window of time expands with the age of the print. So a print made in 1890 from an 1880 negative or a print made in 1960 from a 1958 negative are both referred to as vintage. Prints made in the past, but not vintage, are called “old” prints and prints made recently from the original negatives are called “modern” or “later” prints. The date of a print can usually be determined by the paper used, quality of printing, signature and/or stamp and the condition of the paper surface.

Adapted from the brochure "On Collecting Photographs", 56pp., ©AIPAD, 2001

Hot tips

o What lies ahead for the photography market? Certainly contemporary photography is taking up more and more market share. Fashion photography, like that of Helmut Newton and his forbears such as Horst, is extremely trendy at the moment. Though the Helmut Newton at Sotheby’s April sale did not reach its low estimate of $200,000, it was the sale’s top lot, selling for $185,500, and setting an auction record for the photographer. The market for Newton has been steadily climbing, and was greatly enhanced by his recent travelling museum retrospective. De Pury & Luxembourg in Zurich represent him, and some of his photographs were at contemporary art dealer Mary Boone’s Chelsea gallery last autumn. Recent museum exhibitions seem to have sparked interest in Surrealist photography from the 20s and 30s, such as that of Claude Cahun.

Coming on the market?

o Recently, an article in the Boston Globe speculated that the collection of the Polaroid Corporation may come on the market, depending upon a decision made on 29 April, after The Art Newspaper goes to press. The company filed for bankruptcy last October; its vast collection is mainly composed of photographers’ experimentations with Polaroid’s technology over the years–notably Ansel Adams–but also contains non-Polaroid photographs by the likes of Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham. Skip Colcord, a spokesman for the company, will not confirm anything.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'In sharp focus'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 125 May 2002