Modern photography in the spotlight 22-23 October

[09 Oct 2002]


On 22-23 October, Sotheby’s New York will be auctioning a selection of photographs from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Following on from the success of its last auction of photographs in April 2001, which generated sales of USD2.15m, Sotheby’s is hoping to raise over USD2m from the 212 lots. But while modern photography may be hot this year, few of the artists represented at this auction are enjoying much success at the moment.

The modern period is the richest of the photography market, accounting for 67% of all photographs sold at auction. But while modern prints may be numerous, they do not offer much speculative opportunity. Between 1997 and June 2002, prices rose just 3.5%, and over the same period, only the most prolific artists yielded a profit. There is a strong correlation between the productivity of a modern photographer and their prices over the medium term. And the more frequently a photographer is auctioned, the greater the value of their work tends to be. The most auctioned works also tend to be the best-performing. MAN RAY, Walker EVANS, Ansel Easton ADAMS, BRASSAÏ and Harry CALLAHAN were all represented at over 50 auctions in 2001, and all of them have seen their prices more than double in the last five years. The work of Ansel Easton ADAMS has been the most profitable of all these photographers: on average, USD100 invested in one of his photographs in 1997 would now be worth USD400. (Adams will open the proceedings at the Sotheby’s auction with three lots with estimates of USD8-18,000.


The situation is quite different for those of his peers who go to auction less frequently. Alfred STIEGLITZ, Edward Henry WESTON, László MOHOLY-NAGY, Margaret BOURKE-WHITE, Paul STRAND, and many others failed to rise in value in 1997-2002.

Many of the photographers represented at the 22-23 October auction have been losing their momentum since the start of the year. Judging by recent trends, there is a high risk that two key lots–a print by Edward STEICHEN (Dolor, with an estimate of USD70-100,000) and another by Alfred STIEGLITZ (Apple and Gable, Lake George, estimate: USD100–150,000)–will be bought in: The prices of these two artists are on the decline, and they both have particularly high unsold ratios (42%). The most eagerly awaited lot, with an estimate of USD150-250,000, is a print by Man Ray, Untitled (Rayograph with flowers and ferns). But even though the prices of this leading artist have risen by 8% this year, 48 of his 124 lots failed to find a buyer in the first half of the year

On the same day as the Sotheby’s auction, Christie’s is auctioning a large catalogue of 431 photographs. The auction covers all photography styles and periods, commencing with a print by Lewis CARROLL, and ending with Chris VERENE


Breakdowns of number of photographies sold at auctionyear 2001