"The rich are different from you and me."
"Yes, they have more money."
—Attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway respectively but not quite accurately.
Of the 19 most expensive photographs sold to date, two are by Alfred Stieglitz and two are by Edward Weston.
Also represented twice each on the list are Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, and Cindy Sherman.
One is a "recontextualized" copy photograph, one a tatty old tintype of a mythical criminal, one a portrait of a famous art-world celebrity, and one a perfectly nondescript nature shot. At least one was extensively digitally manipulated.
An interesting list. For one thing, the numbers aren't bunched; the dropoff from #1 ($4, 338,500) to #19 ($609,600) is pretty steep. (Sorry, I don't know what that concept would actually be called in proper economics terminology.)
It strikes me that money = power and so large sums of money command a respectful attitude generally, which is somewhat difficult to look past in the case of just one picture. When a sale record is set, people tend to scrutinize the picture with great curiosity to see what might be there that they might not be seeing. Looked at collectively, however, one thing seems pretty clear: there's no hidden wisdom there. The art market has no better an idea of what constitutes a good photograph than anyone else does. It is no better at distilling excellence into a small sampling than any given collector, curator, or savant with a point of view would be. The list encourages a different conclusion: that value is ultimately a temporary and arbitrary confluence of chance and circumstance. Why that Atget, that Sherman, that Gursky? Well, because someone who had that much money to spend wanted it that much at that time, that's why.
(Thanks to Red Dog News)
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Featured Comments from:
Zoë: "Or rather, since the jaw-dropping figures presumably come from publicly available auction results, there were at least two people with nearly the same amount of money to spend who wanted it nearly as much as each other.... Perhaps our fascination lies in thinking that the opinion of a single rich eccentric may be safely ignored, but two in agreement might be on to something...?"
John Camp (partial comment): "I disagree that the art market has no better an idea of what constitutes a good photograph than anyone else does, if you consider the market as a whole, and as extending over time, as opposed to one sale or one trend or one fashion. A winnowing takes place, and the art that floats to the top is generally very, very good. But again, the best art is not uncovered over a short span of time—in one auction or a series of auctions, or in a couple of spectacular buys by one collector, who may be more 'speculative investor' who believes he has spotted a bubble, than a real collector. ...Most people (outside of those driven by fashion and speculation) are pretty careful about where they put their money, and when you're talking about a lot of money, more careful yet."
Craig: "I'm not sure buyers of art were ever all that astute as a class (Van Gogh didn't exactly die rich, after all), but they seem to have gotten a lot worse since the 1970s. The late art critic Robert Hughes attributed this to the fact that art collectors are, by and large, no longer people who grew up with money and received a good classical education, but instead are now people who made their money themselves, often in technology (wealthy Japanese electronics and automobile executives, Silicon Valley computer and software millionaires, etc.) or in finance (corrupt bankers, investment gurus, etc.). These people don't really know anything about art, but they have an emotional need for a level of respect that you don't get just by having money, so they decide to be 'important' art collectors. Unfortunately, they have no ability to tell good from bad, so they follow trends, get suckered by slick-talking art dealers, and generally corrupt the art market by spending way too much on stuff that may or may not have lasting cultural (or even financial) value. This argument makes a lot of sense to me."