As one of the more “recent” art forms, photography’s popularity in the art market has grown and grown, with the highest amount paid for a photograph sticking at $838,000 in 1999 until being bumped off the top spot 4 years later with a sale of $922,488, and then again 2 years later when the first million-dollar photograph was sold for $1,248,000.
Andreas Gursky is by far the most successful photographer when it comes to selling the most expensive photographs at auction (with 9 prints selling for over $1 million), followed by Cindy Sherman, who is the most successful female photographer to sell at auction (with 7 lots selling for more than $1 million).
The overwhelming majority of these photographs were created via analog cameras, suggesting that film photography is considered far more valuable than digital. The most recent image to have been captured in the list is Tobolsk Kremlin, a digital print from Dmitry Medvedev, taken in 2009, and the oldest is Joseph Philibert Girault de Prangey’s Daguerreotype 113 Athenes, Temple de Jupiter captured in 1842. These photographs were taken 167 years apart.
Some photographs feature several times on the list, such as Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still 48 and Untitled 96, and Richard Prince’s Untitled (cowboy) with different editions of these prints selling in different years and, sometimes, different auction houses.
One of the most recent additions to the ultimate list was the 2017 sale of Orphaned Cheetah Cubs, Mweiga, near Nyeri, Kenya, March 1968 by Peter Beard, which sold for over $672,000 at Christie’s New York on 10th October 2017 in the ‘Photographs Including Property from the Museum of Modern Art’ auction. Though it did not break into the top 20, it was by far one of the most expensive photographs to sell this year.
As well as a print from Edward Weston at Christie’s New York – back in April, other prints to be added to the ultimate list this year included Freischwimmer 84 by Wolfgang Tillmans ($800,000, Phillips London), May Day IV by Andreas Gursky (£758,750, Christie’s London) and Red Morning (Hell) by Gilbert & George (£848,750, Christie’s London).
But there were two stand-out sales this year, both of which came for Man Ray, who not only entered the list for the first time but entered the top 20 with 2 sales. In May, Man Ray’s Portrait of a tearful woman became the first photograph to enter the top 20 since 2015, selling for $2.1 million (Christie’s New York). This was a world record for the artist, which was broken 6 months later with Noire et Blanche, which became the 14th most expensive photograph to ever sell at auction (2.6 million euros, Christie’s Paris), making it the most expensive photograph to sell this year.
The most expensive photograph ever sold is a contentious topic as more and more photographs are sold privately, directly to the buyer. However, here is an up-to-date list (at the time of this writing) of the 20 most expensive sold at auction (in ascending order):
#20. Cindy Sherman, Untitled 92 1981
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Christie’s New York in November 2013: $2,045,000
#19. Man Ray, Portrait of a Tearful Woman 1936
Hand-coloured Gelatin Silver print. Sold at Christie’s New York in May 2017: $2,167,500
#18. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still 48
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014: $2,225,000
#17. Unknown, “Billy the Kid” (Fort Sumner, New Mexico) 1879
Tin-type. Sold at Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction in June 2011: $2,300,000
#16. Andreas Gursky, Paris, Montparnasse 1993
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Sotheby’s London in October 2013: $2,416,475
#15. Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade 1997
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2013: $2,507,755
#14. Man Ray, Noire et Blanche, 1926
Silver print. Sold at Christie’s Paris in November 2017: EUR 2,688,750
#13. Cindy Sherman, Untitled 153 1985
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Phillips New York in November 2010: $2,770,500
#12. Cindy Sherman, Untitled 96 1981
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Christie’s New York in May 2012: $2,882,500
#11. Andreas Gursky, Los Angeles 1998
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2008: $2,900,000
#10. Edward Steichen, The Pond – Moonlight 1904
Gum Bichromate print over Platinum. Sold at Sotheby’s New York in February 2006: $2,928,000
#9. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still 48
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Christie’s New York in May 2015: $2,965,000
#8. Richard Prince, Untitled (cowboy)
Ektacolour Print. Sotheby’s New York May 2014: $3,077,000
#7. Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade 1997
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2013: $3,298,755
#6. Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon 2001
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2007: $3,346,456
#5. Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk 1992
Transparency in Lightbox. Sold at Christie’s New York in May 2012: $3,666,500
#4. Gilbert & George, To Her Majesty 1973
Gelatin Silver print. Sold at Christie’s London in June 2008: $3,765,276
#3. Cindy Sherman, Untitled 96 1981
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Christie’s New York in May 2011: $3,890,500
#2. Richard Prince, Spiritual America 1981
Note: This image features an undressed child, if you wish to see the photograph you must follow this link to Christie’s website.
Ektacolor print. Sold at Christie’s New York in May 2014: $3,973,000
#1. Andreas Gursky, Rhein II 1999
Chromogenic color print. Sold at Christie’s New York in November 2011: $4,338,500
About the author: Amy-Fern Nuttall is the editor of Photographyatauction.com and a committee member and Web Content Manager for the Royal Photographic Society’s Analogue Group. This article was also published here.