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Friday, 24 May 2013


Mike said:

"The art market has no better an idea of what constitutes a good photograph than anyone else does."

I disagree with this, 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. There were a number of American artists who rose to a kind of heated, fashionable prominence in the 1980s, and whose works now sell for perhaps 1/10th of what they brought when new. That's the broader market at work, constantly looking and re-evaluating. And 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.

One example of this in photography is the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose best limited-edition flower photos may sell for any where from $100,000 and more, to the low to middle teens, depending on the image. The size, finish and other considerations generally don't make as much difference as you would think -- it's the artistic impact that counts. There is a general consensus about which of his flower images are best, and that consensus hasn't changed very much since his death.

No, it's because at least two people with that much money to spend wanted it that much at that time.

Mike said..."Well, because someone who had that much money to spend wanted it that much at that time, that's why."

These are auction results (private sales are another matter); so at least two people had enough money and desire, at the same moment, to bid to (almost) that point. One bidder, even with incredible wealth and passion , need only reach the reserve, if any.

I used to attend auctions and luck seemed to matter, as when bidders passed on a work due to a prior purchase, exited for lunch or to attend another event, or when nature called. These days, it's much less interesting to watch, as much bidding has moved to phone and online.

Spot on....value is a fleeting beast, insane and totally unpredictable. And yet, we do calculate with as if value was something tangeble.

Greets, Ed.

It's an example a "long-tailed" curve: a Pareto distribution of prices versus rank. Low probability outcomes (very high prices) have a larger probability of occuring than in a "normal" (Gaussian) distribution.


This sort of thing is quite common in natural and social phenomenon associated with networks of interactions.

Zipf's Law is perhaps the best known but there are plenty of other examples.


In Pareto distributions (and other long tailed curves) normal reasoning about the probability of deviations around an average go out of the window (as the distribution doesn't have a meaningful average).

If the list of the 19 most expensive photographs were reversed, it could make much more sense. Spending around 4 millions in montages and manipulated images of nondescript landscapes? That's just silly. In a way, it can be considered obscene.
Not that it matters much, but Richard Avedon's 'Dovima With Elephants' has been a firm favourite of mine since I saw it for the first time, though I find the one with Dovima in a black dress to be even better.

"Well, because someone who had that much money to spend wanted it that much at that time, that's why."

Most of these were sold at auction, right? So I guess that makes it that two people who had that much money to spend wanted it that much at that time, but one of them wanted it ever so slightly less.

BTW, always loved F. Scott, and not a big fan of Papa. Fitzgerald got the 20's correct, while Papa was too wrapped up in being macho to notice. If you follow Mike's link, it's a great repeat of the the way this "story of the quotes" got mashed up, but leave it to Papa to turn everything into a competition...

As a "20's-O-phile", I recently saw the new Gatsby, against my better judgement, but have to say that Baz got as close to nailing it as anyone, maybe better, and altho I distain DiCaprio (he's a movie wrecker for me, killing everything he's in), both he and Baz got a pretty accurate shot of the character of the book in Gatsby's personality and angst of making money, losing Daisy, etc. A begrudging "good show" from me.

Enough, time to open another bottle of champagne...

The only thing I ever needed to learn about wealth and art I learned from AbFab Series 2 episode, "Death".

Why the "99c" image I could swear can be had for free a thousand times over at Flickr is there instead of any of David Hilliard's the truly original works, or, if we're going for radically altered pictures, any of the equally mesmerizing images in Mathieu Bernard Reymond's "Monument" series, I'll never now.

But then again, I don't have any money.

Craig's comment--"These people don't really know anything about art" is sort of an echo of Mike's about the market's idea about a good photograph. As as student--now that I'm retired!--of a Virginia university that prides itself on its fine art photography program and a repeating visitor to the art galleries in NYC, it's pretty clear to me that no one knows what good art is. The simplest definition I've seen is that anything displayed in a NYC gallery seems to qualify and, by implication, anything not in a NYC gallery isn't good enough art...but back to the prices. People were willing to spend their money on those photos, but that doesn't mean they're "good art". It does mean that someone wanted them and was willing to pay for them. We could ask why the Sherman photo or any of the others commanded those prices, so why not yours or mine? There doesn't appear to be any logic, just that "it's art" and someone wanted it.

The world of art collecting, including photography, is very subject to fads and fashions. What was popular 40 years ago may be much less valued today, or vice versa. Reuben's zoftic (plump) nudes are out of fashion today, no matter how technically and artistically great. Similarly, prices are fed by reputation. Would a photo, attributed to Joe Schmo, get the price of the identical photo if attributed to Weston, Adams, Daugerre or Sherman? Hardly. Intrinsic merit of an art object is only one aspect of its financial value and not always the biggest. Add the further complication of economic shifts over time, and motivation of the collector (investment, status, 'I like it') and auction prices are a poor indicator of any photo's intrinsic worth-if there is such a thing...

This is, no doubt, to me at least, the best of his hand photos, and ahead of "Hands With Thimble", and the really forced hands on V8 fender. At least the money was spent on the best version. You are right on with your last sentence, ...someone who had that much money to spend wanted it that much at that time. But, they at least had to like it.


You mentioned "corrupt bankers." It's an easy jab but you don't necessarily have to be corrupt in order to make a small fortune in the banking industry ;).

For the record, a Jeff Koons photo piece sold a couple of weeks ago for $9.4 million...

If these were sold at traditional auction, with buyers (or proxies) physically in the room, there's way more going on than "value" in determining the price.

Coming from an employee of a non-profit that runs a major auction each year as a fundraiser: never underestimate the desire for two (or more) humans to out-compete each other. I've seen items go for three or four times their nominal estimate solely because two bidders didn't want to lose.

I don't have that kind of money to throw around, but some people do, and the need to achieve alpha status by being able to outspend someone else can evidently be a powerful motivating factor.

Man. That Stieglitz... $1.47m and it isn't even sharp. I guess that's why Gursky gets better prices.

“I’ve learnt from experience that a painting isn’t finished when you put down your brush — that’s when it starts. The public reaction is what supplies meaning and value. Art comes alive in the arguments you have about it. (Banksy)"

A photograph isn't finished when ...

A friend of mine developed a business following the collector auto auctions to track values and sell data to potential buyers. It became apparent that there were many bogus sales where two dealers would sell the car back and forth to each other at growing prices to hike the price they would eventually get from some sucker.
Just sayin'

I think that it is worth noting that the highest price Edward Weston received for a print was $50 (Weston's Daybooks). Atget died broke, living on milk and bread (Berenice Abbott). Stieglitz was living toward the end of his life in much reduced circumstances.*

The big money that catches our attention is found in the secondary art market.

Jerry Reed

* should anyone have more such examples of famous photographic artist's income, I would be grateful to receive it at my email address:


One thing that is important to realize about these art auction markets (and in many ways the entire art market these days is something like an auction in very slow motion...)and other luxury markets as well, is that they provide a space in which the very wealthy can trade in one marker of wealth(cash) for another (status object). Stratospheric prices then represent the valuelessness (and perhaps inconvenience, given the amounts involved) of the former as it is exchanged for the latter (a consolidated container that requires no problematic meta-anything, like a bank under the scrutiny of a government, or trunks and suitcases in abundance if you are part of an underground economy---actually a significant problem today for drug cartels).

The cultural value, beyond economic culture---therefore mostly aesthetic with some other trace anthropological elements, is very much a secondary issue in this exchange, although not unimportant. The cultural value is mostly set through "expertizing" of various sorts, which becomes a credential of the object, proving it worthy of the exchange. There is a great deal of fascinating and quite good art that doesn't rise to that level of worthiness at a given moment (but that can change). In terms of preservation, only time will tell---the vast sums will paid will not, and that is because over longer periods of time the original exchange becomes far less important, surviving merely as an historical artifact. So, the assertions that these exchanges also represent moments in time (that object purchased by that wealthy person in that moment) is essentially correct, although the chance aspect is overstated.

steichen's comment "a photograph becomes art when someone pays for it" comes to mind.

I'm really not keen on getting into this topic but feel I must offer something. Although I am not, myself, a collector I have some knowledge of the subject.

Of course it's good, clean self-assuring fun to bash art prices. Has been for years. Why, after all, would anyone pay more than the cost of the materials for some useless thing, whether it's a Steglitz, a Gursky, or even a Ctein? Any price for art above fundamental cost is hard to defend to someone's point of view -- whether $25 or $25 million. Most people's reactions to, and handling of, money is emotional.

But I'll just make two points, duck, and run away to enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend.

First, there's actually more afoot to art pricing than meets the outsider's eye. Of course the auction format gleefully encourages runaway competition. But if you can get past the breathtaking price paid for, say, a Giacometti and take a wider view of what was sold and sales histories you'd see that there is generally a rational lineage to art prices even at auctions. The notion that people of great wealth are jackasses in the top end of the art market is largely an outsider's impression. Successful people often became such by, among other things, knowing when and how to hire good advisers...which is exactly what they do. (Where do you think all those art history PhD grads go?) It's also worth noting that many art sales still take place through private dealers. While pricing at such sales is not disclosed the top end of the art community is actually quite small. So rumor prices also sometimes get factored into auctions.

The second point I'd like to make is that photography, in the main, still sells for 4 and 5-digit prices even at auction. Yes, pristine vintage works command much higher sums but they're the exceptions. Many lots of "famous names" don't sell at all or, worse, are rejected for offering by the houses. So photography is still, and will remain, in the "entry level" bargain pile of the art market.

But, you say, what about the Gursky, the Burtynsky, the Sherman, the Wall? They often command big numbers, yes. But they're not marketed or sold as photography, per se. These artists have jumped the fence into the larger and more generous world of contemporary art. The fact that the works are created with photographic materials is purely incidental.

Finally, it's important to note that high-end art long ago became an investible asset class just like fixed income, equities, and real estate. The long-term returns on art can dwarf nearly any other investment. Hard losses are rare as big-name art remains fungible collateral for many other purposes.

So as you enjoy the clean family sport of art auction-watching (and bashing) realize that there actually is a somewhat more complex game afoot behind the scenes.

I've conducted (as the auctioneer) art sales at science fiction conventions, and watched (and bid in) many more. Yes, it's quite amazing what you can get people to do once they're in public competition. I almost felt guilty about it (my primary loyalty as auctioneer was to the artists).

Price means nothing relative to intrinsic artistic value, if there even is such a thing. The market is artificially manipulated by a handful of people, most of whom wouldn't know a good photograph, painting, or sculpture if they tripped over it. I heartily recommend "The 12 Million Dollar Shark" to anyone interested in this subject. The author manages to be enlightening, depressing, and amusing, all at once.

Reminds me of the old story:
"When bankers dine together they discuss art.
When artists dine together they discuss money"

I always thought that one reason that prices for certain things become very high, is that it's a way for people to move cash around, sometimes tax effectively.

Contemporary Art with a capital A has a real problem in that there's so much of it. Art is just about the most common thing in the world, and it's not all terrible. The curators and dealers and so on have a big job to select a small enough segment to support a high price. The market demands expensive new works, to support the social desire to own high priced Art.

Folks like Cindy Sherman, I am convinced, are valued as much for their ability to produce new work at a good rate -- neither too fast, nor too slow -- and in a good evolution -- neither too original, nor too staid, as for anything else. If you're going to sell Art for six figures, you've got to be able to get more of it, to create a market rather than a single sale, but it still has to be quite rare.

Anyone who's tried knows how hard it is to grind out an actual portfolio of any size, of related pieces.

What troubles me greatly these days is how art serves as a key link in money-laundering schemes globally:


No, a photograph becomes a commodity when someone pays for it.

Art is a reflection of human culture in all it's diverse extremes, so it's nearly impossible to define general quantitative assessments of worth.

Clearly ANY photo by a celebrated artist becomes collectable, especially a rare edition or original negative. It's value is not the quality of the piece in isolation, but the quality of it's association with the whole body of work.

Any Van Gogh, however poor in relative terms, is virtually priceless simply because it's a Van Gogh.

Photography (along with other printed arts) presents pricing problems in the art world. The most valuable work may not be the best or even best liked, just very rare. For paintings and sculptures rarity is sometimes an issue, for artists like Seurat, Vermeer, and Klimt, who were either not prolific, died young, or made few major, mature works.

But for most artists there are a large number of works and value has more to do with quality than just rarity. Mature Monets and Cezannes number in the thousands, some clearly greater than others. Photography hasn't been valued and studied as long so artistic value of most work is still unclear. Rarity is a simpler matter. If only two good prints exist of a historically important photograph, they are valuable. Ansel Adams was too prolific. Not that his works aren't valuable, but the prices would be higher if he had printed a lot fewer.

And Steichen knows .........

I stopped reading the article when I saw the opening sentence, which said "It has been a long debate weather photography . . . " If someone expects me to read something they write they'll have to know, at a minimum, the difference between "weather" and "whether" and when to use each.

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