Sotheby’s Launches Its First-Ever Contemporary Photography Auction, Tapping Into a Newly Hot Market

The sector is gaining broad appeal beyond the specialized collector.

Art handlers carry Thomas Struth's 2000 piece Notre Dame, Paris, at Sotheby's auction house. Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images.

Sotheby’s is staging its first dedicated sale of postwar and contemporary photographs on September 28 in New York. Specialists say the latest addition to the auction calendar reflects the growing audience for photo-based work, which no longer appeals primarily to highly specialized collectors.

Anchored by 49 works from the Ames Collection, the 94-lot sale carries a total pre-sale estimate of $2.1–3.1 million and includes works by Thomas Struth, Matthew Barney, and David Hockney. The sale will also present a number of photographs of performance, including works by Helena Almeida, Vito Acconci, and Sophie Calle.

“Photography is one of the most accessible collecting categories today and offers dynamism and immediacy for collectors,” Emily Bierman, head of Sotheby’s photographs department in New York, told artnet News. “We live in a world where today’s collectors have never known a world without photography.”

The newly created sale will not affect Sotheby’s regular photography auction, which is still scheduled to take place the following week on October 5. That sale will offer an encyclopedic selection of works from the early days of the medium in the 1840s up to the Modern era, including examples by Robert Frank and Robert Mapplethorpe. The total pre-sale estimate of the October auction is $3.6–$5.5 million—significantly greater than the $2.9 million total achieved at the equivalent sale last year.

Bierman noted that new buyers are drawn to the sector because of its prices, which are far lower than those for contemporary painting or sculpture by similarly prominent names. “You can own a great photograph, a masterpiece within photography, in a way that you can no longer do in many other categories,” she said.

The announcement of Sotheby’s sale coincides with the release of a report by the British private banking group Coutts that ranked photography as the most valuable and fastest-growing collectible segment last year. (By contrast, fine art and classic cars both decreased in value, according to the Guardian.)

This season could prove a goldmine for enterprising photography collectors. In addition to the expanded calendar of Sotheby’s photography auctions, Christie’s will sell a cache of more than 400 photographs from the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in a series of auctions, most of which are online sales, beginning this fall.

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