A few years ago, the photographer Cindy Sherman, was written up in The Wall Street Journal as being the best investment in art over the past 25 years.
Cindy Sherman does not sell at photography galleries as a general rule. Her work is sold with contemporary art, i.e. graphic art, painting, sculpture and mixed media work. Andreas Gursky, the German photographer, I understand, refuses to sell his work through photography galleries and sells only through art galleries that carry a multitude of art forms. Why is that?
Meet Mr. Jones, a wealthy investment banker (fictional of course). When Mr. Jones goes to his dealer and gets ready to drop his annual art budget of a couple of million dollars, he does not even give photographs a second thought. That is because the galleries that he would typically frequent do not carry photographs. He will stand in front of a Basquiat graffiti-esque canvas and will study it, look at the $2.5 million price tag and think that this is quite the work and quite the steal. After all, the dealer assures him that Basquiat has sold for much more than that at recent auctions.
If Mr. Jones were to walk down the street to a photography gallery, he would walk in the door and see prices that are usually only a few thousand dollars. Typically, contemporary work is in the low four to five figures. He looks around, goes into doubt-mode and wonders if anything this cheap can possibly be good art. More importantly, at this low price point, it cannot possibly be appropriate for his next dinner party, when he will proudly show off his new Basquiat.
This is precisely why Sherman, Gursky and a handful of others sell in a mixed gallery where their work is displayed side-by-side with painting and sculpture. Going this route the artists have broken the price barrier that photography has imposed on itself.
When I speak with dealers, they acknowledge the problem. Often the photography collector will walk into the gallery with a certain price expectation. After all, he believes he knows what photographs are worth, or at least what he used to be able to buy them for. Beads of sweat emerge when he sees the sticker price of $45,000 for a 30×60-inch photograph by a contemporary ‘rising star’.
If we now go back to our first shopper, Mr. Jones, he goes to his regular dealer and is confronted by a Cindy Sherman hanging next to his Basquiat and the dealer goes on and on about how important the work is and how it will go up in value and how his friends will admire his sublime taste in contemporary art. The dealer will tell him that photography is all the rage.
He doesn’t even blink at the price. It is cheaper than the Basquiat, but it has more conversation value, shows his open mind toward contemporary art – Basquiat is so last year he thinks, while slowly drawing on the Cohiba and sipping his vintage port.
The issue here is one of expectations and of the nature of the photography collectors. No more than 35 years ago you could pick up major photographs by major artists for under $100. Therefore the leap to $50,000 or more is a difficult one. But if you have not grown up in the photography world, or taken it upon yourself to learn a bit of the history, then in comparison to other modern and contemporary art, photography is cheap — dirt cheap.
It will take some time and effort to move off some of the prices that have dominated photography over the years, but it will happen, and when it does, if you started collecting today, you might just be the one with the Cohiba saying, “I told you so!” It is not a matter of if, but when.
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