Top 10 : Photography

[23 Nov 2012]


Every fortnight Artprice presents a theme-based auction ranking. This week, the 10 best auction results for photographs between January and November 2012.

Since 1980, on an alternate year basis, November has been Photography Month in the French capital. Even if the success of this “month” has become European under the aegis of EMoP (European Month of Photography) for already the last 5 editions, Paris has remained its central market with the fervent ambition to be the global capital for photography. In response to this determination (initially institutional), the market has rapidly risen to the occasion. In its 17th edition, the International Fair Paris-Photo is the cornerstone of the season, especially as many art critics describe it as most important fair of its kind. In addition to hosting the biggest names in the photography market and attracting collectors from all over the world, Paris-Photo also doubles with a whole string of specialist photography auction sales. Indeed, auction houses are increasingly dominating the event and this year they have offered more than a thousand photographs for sale. The specialist photography auction market generally has two calendar highpoints: the spring sales in New York and the autumn sales in Paris. However, in 2012, the autumnal effervescence has not generated the best sales results.

The Top 10 lots traded between January and November 2012 clearly reflect this reality: 80% of the best results were generated during the spring sales with the remaining 20% recorded in February. Nevertheless, the other significant observation revealed by this ranking is the real weight of specialist photography sales, because none of our top 10 results come from these sales. In fact, all ten results were hammered at Christie’s evening sales of Contemporary or Contemporary & Post-War Art. The auctioneers thus always reserve their best pieces for these events and do not rely on specialist sales to set new records.

As for the signatures, the ranking is almost exclusively dedicated to Contemporary photographers (born after 1945). Only Gilbert & George, with a superb 3rd place, belong to the so-called “Post-War” category. So…among the winners, we have the five usual names… five giants of the medium: Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Gilbert & George, Andreas Gursky and Richard Prince.

Top 10 : Photography

Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Jeff WALL $3200000 Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near M (1992) 05/08/2012 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
2 Cindy SHERMAN $2500000 Untitled #96 (1981) 05/08/2012 (Christie’s NEW YORK NY)
3 GILBERT & GEORGE $1736790 “Bloody Life No. 13” (1975) 02/14/2012 (Christie’s LONDON)
4 Andreas GURSKY $1700000 Untitled VI (1997) 05/09/2012 (Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY)
5 Richard PRINCE $1200000 Untitled (Cowboy) (1980/84) 05/10/2012 (Phillips de Pury & Company NEW YORK NY)
6 Andreas GURSKY $942899 James Bond Island I (2007) 02/15/2012 (Sotheby’s LONDON)
7 Andreas GURSKY $934260 “Rhein” (1996) 06/27/2012 (Christie’s LONDON)
8 Richard PRINCE $780350 Untitled (Cowboys) (1986) 06/28/2012 (Phillips de Pury & Company LONDON)
9 Andreas GURSKY $750000 May Day V (2006) 05/09/2012 (Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY)
10 Cindy SHERMAN $700000 Untitled #91 (1981) 05/09/2012 (Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY)



In 1st place, the Canadian Jeff WALL, who after receiving substantial critical acclaim, is now clearly lauded by the market, with a result of $3.2m for his immense (229.2 x 417 2 cm) Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near M (1992) in May 2012. After a fierce bidding battle, the work exceeded its high estimate by $1.2m and set a new record for the artist. However, this result appears to have been an isolated case because since May 2012, Jeff Wall has not recorded any million-plus results. Indeed his best result since then has not exceeded the $300,000 that his Pleading fetched in October 2012 (Sotheby’s London)!

More accustomed to astronomical prices than Jeff Wall, the American artist Cindy SHERMAN takes 2nd place in this ranking with $2.5m for Untitled #96 (1981) from her famous Centerfolds series. A good figure indeed; but the piece actually sold below its low estimate of $2.8m. Christie’s was clearly not too happy about the estimate since another copy of the same work had fetched no less than $3.4m in May 2011 setting a substantially higher auction record for the artist. Also from her most sought-after series, Centerfolds, her Untitled #91 (1981) and its result of $700,000 give Cindy Sherman 10th place in this ranking. This result, again beneath the announced low estimate ($800,000) is her best result for an Untitled # 91.

The “dandy troublemakers” GILBERT & GEORGE take 3rd place in this Top with “Bloody Life No. 13” (1975) fetching more than $1.7m in February 2012. This large-format work, from 1975, is among the first photomontages made by the duo, a technique that has become the trademark of the winners of the coveted Turner Prize (1986). This excellent result for Bloody Life No.13 is also their second best-ever result behind the almost $3.3m for their To her Majesty in June 2008 (Christie’s London).

We could not imagine a Top 10 without the author of the world’s highest bid for a work of art photography: Andreas GURSKY. Even if his best result this year only takes 4th place, he still has four results in this ranking. A regular auction “millionaire”, Gursky’s works have generated 16 seven-figure results since his 99 cent II sold for $2m in May 2006 at Sotheby’s New York. Among the 4 works in this Top, only his Untitled VI (1997) crossed the $1m threshold ($1.7m at Sotheby’s New York). James Bond Island I (2007) and “Rhein” (1996) were however not far off fetching more than $940,000 and $930,000 respectively.

Richard PRINCE’s Cowboys continue to excite auction rooms and fetch good results. This Top confirms this with two in 5th and 8th place. Untitled (Cowboy) (1980/84) sold for $1.2m in May (Phillips de Pury & Company New York) and Untitled (Cowboys) (1986) fetched more than $780,000 in June 2012 (Phillips de Pury & Company London). Also a painter and used to million-dollar records both in photography and in painting, Richard Prince was still, in 2011, the 63rd best-selling artist in the world.

While there can be no doubt about the effervescence created by the Month of Photography in Paris, the auction results do not confirm Paris as the world capital of photography since the medium’s best auction results are always scored in London and New York. Another interesting observation concerns the slack demand for photography in Asia: despite China’s clear leadership of the global art auction market, none of the best-selling photographs between January and November 2012 were hammered in the region.