Although 2015 saw a slight drop in the auction market for photographs, this is due in large part to unpredictable, outside forces. For example, the Paris terrorist attacks in November interrupted the Fall photography sales in Paris and the photography fair, Paris Photo. Additionally, the departure of established photography specialists at some of the major auction houses affected recent sales.
Market conditions for blue-chip material: STRONG
Continuing a trend among collectors to compete for works by well-established artists and iconic images, the percentage of lots sold at auction for $1,000,000 or more has stabilized over the last five years. Once a rarity, the sale of photographs in the million dollar range has come to be expected. Contemporary photography continues to dominate the top-tier of the photography market, with Richard Prince, Ai Wei Wei, and Andreas Gursky realizing prices in excess of $1,000,000. Prices for iconic photographs by stalwarts of Modernist photography, such as Man Ray, Irving Penn, and Edward Weston, have seen prices rising precipitously, indicating growing confidence in this sector of the market and a greater appreciation for the rarity of exceptional prints by these artists.
In December 2014, a Sotheby’s sale, 175 Masterworks to Celebrate 175 Years of Photography: Property from Joy of Giving Something Foundation, established a new record for a photography auction. The sale total of $21,325,063 with 90 percent of lots sold firmly exceeded the previous record of $14,982,900, set in 2006 by another single-owner Sotheby’s auction. Traditional photography dealers have been successfully attracting collectors who appreciate the stability and growing maturity of the photography market.
Market conditions for mid-level material: STABLE
Prices for mid-level photography continue to be stable. This material, generally in the $20,000 to $100,000 range, is most often seen in dedicated photography sales at the larger auction houses in New York, Paris, and London. Photography dealers and galleries have also increased their presence at photography fairs and art fairs around the world, where mid-range material is especially popular.
Market conditions for entry-level material: STABLE
Prices for entry-level photography also show stability. Although sales in this range have decreased at biannual sales held by the major auction houses in London, Paris, and New York, smaller auction houses in Europe and the United States have increasingly added sales devoted to photography to their schedules. Photography has also gained a foothold in smaller fine art galleries and through online vendors. The availability of affordable photographs by masters in the field has never been greater.
Lucy von Brachel is Senior Photography Specialist at Winston Art Group.