The top 10 best auction results for Photography

[22 Jul 2010]


Every fortnight Artprice provides you with a new or updated ranking in its Alternate-Friday Top Series. The theme of today’s TOP article is the Top 10 auction results recorded in photography.

While photography is still a long way behind painting or sculpture in terms of the sums spent at auctions, it nevertheless attracts some very high bids. Indeed, all the top 10 results are in 7 figures.
The first photograph to cross the $1 million line was The North American Indian, Portfolio 1-20 (1907-1930) by Edward S. CURTIS which fetched $1.2m in October 2005 at Christie’s in New York. Since then, more than twenty photos have fetched 7-figure dollar results…
Although photography was one of the most profitable art segments over the last decade (posting an 81% increase in its price index between January 1999 and April 2010 vs. 59% for painting), this evolution has been primarily concentrated in the United States which accounts for 7 of the top 10 bids.

Top 10 auction results for photography

Ten records in just three years
The ten best auction results in the photography segment were all generated between February 2006 and June 2008.
In June 2008, just 4 months after GILBERT & GEORGE’s Bad Thoughts No.2, 1975 generated $1m at Sotheby’s in London (their first 7-figure auction result), the duo recorded their auction record and the world record auction result for a photograph at Christie’s in London when To her Majesty, 1973 (145 x 350cm) fetched $3.2m. On the back of these two results, Gilbert & George’s price index was projected into a much higher orbit (+190% between 2008 and 2010).
The same year, another photograph injected even more effervescence into the London market: Andreas GURSKY’s Los Angeles, 1998 sold for $2.5m at Sotheby’s, the fifth best result in our ranking. In June 2006, the German photographer’s 99 cent, (1999) fetched $2m. Six months later, boosted by this success, his diptych 99 cent II, (2001) fetched $2.2m at Philips de Pury in New York, and a year after that, the same Cibachrome work fetched $2.9m at Sotheby’s in London, taking third place in our ranking.
In 2007, the total global revenue from 9,420 photographic auction lots amounted to $171m. 2007 was also the peak year for the segment with 5 new records.
Three months after Gursky’s 99 cent II, (2001), Richard PRINCE’s Cowboy (2001) fetched the best result of the year at $2.5m at Christie’s New York May sale. In November 2007, again in New York, a 254cm x 169cm Ektachrome from the same series entitled Cowboy (2001-2002) sold for $3m as the demand for the artist’s work multiplied. Two other records were also created in this highly dynamic context.

The hegemony of contemporary photography
As Richard Prince posted his second best result for a photograph at Christie’s prestigious New York May sale in 2007, the demand for contemporary photography continued to soar.
At the same sale, the American artist Cindy SHERMAN posted her personal auction record when her Untitled No.92 (1981) fetched $1.8m, just above Hiroshi SUGIMOTO’s result of $1.6m Black Sea, Ozuluce/Yellow Sea, Cheju/Red Sea, Safaga (1991-1992).
Whereas Modern photography was very much in demand during 2005 (having generated €32 million between November 2004 and October 2005) two years later, the market’s appetite appears to have switched to Contemporary works.
In fact, the only Modern work in our top 10 ranking (in 4th place) is The Pond, Moonlight, (1904) by Edward STEICHEN, which fetched $2.6m at Sotheby’s New York in February 2006, the highest price ever paid for a work of Modern photography. Since then, none of the works by this Luxemburg photographer have fetched more than $450,000 (indeed 90% of his lots have generated less than $66,432).

Clearly the art photography market is still very much in its prime. In terms of revenue, photography only represents 1.51% of the total auction revenue generated by Fine Art.