Nearly two hundred years after the invention of photography, creations in the medium are finally being considered “safe” investments. The value of photographs as collectibles is rising sharply, to the pleasure of auction-goers and to the woe of some photographers.
Though paintings, sculptures, prints, and other works of fine art have been spotlighted on the auction block for many years and for tremendous money (works by Jackson Pollock and Gustav Klimt—to name only two—have sold at auction for more than $100 million apiece), the world of fine art collectors has seldom been penetrated by even the most renowned photographers.
This, however, is changing.
Some of the most valuable photographs hold their rank by virtue of historic value, such as Edward Steichen’s The Pond-Moonlight, which sold for nearly $3 million at auction and was created using primitive gum-based color photography techniques. Though sold as a photograph, it was more likely to have been purchased as an artifact.
Diane Arbus, arguably an iconic 20th century photographer, has seen her photographs sell at auction for only as much as $478,000; not a small sum to be sure, but merely a drop in the ocean by comparison to paintings that regularly sell for between $70 and $140 million.
Where’s the Demand?
So why aren’t collectors snapping up photographic prints at the same rate they snap up paintings, sculptures, assemblages, mobiles, and everything else? Why does photography carry this stigma within the confines of the fine art world? Surely there have lived amazing artists working within the photographic medium, so why aren’t their creations appreciating at the same rate as paintings and sculptures?
I can’t answer those questions, but I can say that the tide may be turning. Collectors are now starting to realize the investment potential of fine art photography, especially at the current time when collectible photography is still largely a bear market. As confidence is reinforced by annual photography fairs in New York, Paris, and now London, the value of fine art photographs will begin to climb.
Prices Are Actually Meaningless
Before I get too deeply mired in the collectible photography discussion and betray my true feelings toward selling art, let me take a step backwards and point out that selling photography (or any art) at auction, is vastly different from selling art to consumers.
From the standpoint of an artist, the final selling price of one of your works at auction should not be interpreted as an editorial on your abilities or the popularity of your work. Unfortunately for some, the fine art collectors' marketplace is driven by people who want to make money. These people have an interest in art, to be sure, but they are looking for reliable investments, not the prettiest pictures for their palatial libraries (though the two can occasionally coincide).
Widely acclaimed Indian photographer Raghu Rai put it very plainly, “Most people are buying photographs because they consider it a trend to cash in on. For them, it is just another investment, like shares or property. It’s not because they love the art.”
Hooray for Fine Art!
Nevertheless, this is an exciting trend for fine art photography. Photographer Anay Mann says that “fine art photography has a longer shelf life and is worth collecting, since it is the work of these photographers that will appreciate in value over the years.” A true statement of promise for those of us toiling toward our own ends in the world of photographic fine art.
Whether your work winds up at auction some day (perhaps even after your death) or not is of little importance. The simple concession from collectors and the “upper crust” of art buyers that photography is a valid, collectible, and yes, valuable medium is a great boon to our artistic legitimacy and to our profitability.
Here are the articles I referred to in writing this synopsis:
- Flash: Photos make great investments, The Times of India
- Photography looks good for long-term investment The Scotsman
- Photography loses its negative image The Independent
- Photographs click as great investments moneycontrol.com
Many of these stories were triggered by the announcement of the opening of photo-london a photography fair in London opening for the first time this year.