Fine art photography market – New York results



Between 30 March and 2 April 2009, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Company once again tested the Fine Art Photography market in New York.Over the last decade, Fine Art photography has proved to be one of the most profitable segments of the art market with prices more than doubling between January 1998 and January 2008 according to the price index calculated by ArtpriceIn 2008, more than 11,600 photographs changed hands at auctions, generating total revenue of $158 million (vs. $171.4 million in 2007 from 9,420 lots). However by January 2009 – with the crisis in full swing – the Fine Art Photography price index had fallen back to its 2004 level.

At the recent photography auctions in New york, Sotheby’s scored the highest bid with a portrait of his first wife Lucia Moholy taken by László MOHOLY-NAGY in 1920. Fetching $200,000 the work became the artist’s sixth best-ever sale. Nevertheless, its rarity and its quality could have generated a new record for the artist in a more propitious economic climate (it carried a high estimate of $300,000). Overall, very few of the lots offered at the three auction houses managed to get past their high estimates. Christie’s managed it once with a famous Herb RITTS photograph carrying a very attractive estimate of $20,000 – $30,000. The 1989 picture entitled, Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood sold for $35,000, but the figure was still way below the $90,000 that the artist generated on 16 October 2007 at Sotheby’s.
Christie’s and Phillips both gambled on works by Richard AVEDON offering two high quality lots. On 31 March, two cult photographs of Dovima with Elephants were offered at Christie’s: The artist’s proof fetched $95,000 but the later print of the same work was bought in against an over-optimistic estimate of $30,000. The following day, Phillips de Pury & Company managed to sell a print from the same 1979 edition for $22,000. However, Avedon’s best result was generated by Phillips de Pury & Company for a portfolio of 11 photographs, Avedon/Paris, which fetched its low estimate of 100,000. After four years of uninterrupted price inflation, Avedon’s price index has lost its momentum. In effect, its ascension was particularly rapid (+104% between 2005 and 2008) with a high point of $365,000 in 2007 for his portrait of Marilyn Monroe, New York City, which fetched no less than five times its estimated price.

Robert MAPPLETHORPE, whose index is also waning (-27% between January 2008 and January 2009), nevertheless remains one of the cornerstones of photography auctions. His famous white lilies generated $141,500 at Christie’s in two lots and $75,000 at Sotheby’s over two days. Indeed, it was a Calla lily that generated Mapplethorpe’s best 2008 auction result when it fetched $220,000 at Christie’s against an estimated price range of $100 000 – $150 000. In 2009, the elegant white flower has so far sold for more modest sums – not exceeding $100,000.
Other results were frankly disappointing, some reaching their low estimate and others selling for substantially less: Nails in Technicolor, New York, by Horst P. HORST for example was expected to generate between $10,000 – $15,000 and finally sold for $4,200 at Christie’s. At Sotheby’s, Robert FRANK’s lone walker in the smog (1951) went under the hammer for $10,000 vs. an estimate of $25,000 – $35,000 despite the fact that his New Orleans (TROLLEY) fetched $100,000 on the same day.

Phillips de Pury and Company’s sale generated a total of $1.5m with a bulkier (279 lots) and more contemporary catalogue that its peers (Christie’s generated $1.24m from 115 lots Sotheby’s $1.85m from 186 lots). Contemporary fine art photographs also posted moderate results: Untitled #122 (1983) by Cindy SHERMAN sold within its estimated range at $95,000; Troy from the Grief series by Erwin OLAF fetched its low estimate of $18,000 and Jesus is my homeboy : Last Supper (2003) by David LACHAPELLE made a timid ascension to $22,000. Remember that the same piece by David LACHAPELLE fetched $15,000 more on 13 May 2008 at Sotheby’s in London.
During the four days of sales, the ‘Buy intentions rate’ of Artprice’s Art Market Confidence Index (AMCI) reached 78%. It would appear therefore that amateur art collectors are still ready to buy, despite the crisis, but only at substantially ‘adjusted’ prices.