The artnet Analytics Team’s Guide to the Photography Market

We turned to the artnet Price Database to get a snapshot of the state of the market.

Irving Penn, Still Life with Watermelon (1947). Courtesy of Feldschuh Gallery.
Irving Penn, Still Life with Watermelon (1947). Courtesy of Feldschuh Gallery.

The market for fine art photography has never reached the same heights as the rest of the contemporary art sector, even when you’re taking into account fine-art prints. Representing a relatively small percentage of auction house sales, it has remained a niche collecting category, with modest prices compared to singular works like paintings and sculptures.

As with any niche, information is half the battle. Connoisseurs who understand the medium and the idiosyncrasies of the photography market are the most likely to reap its rewards. Using the artnet Price Database, we took a close look at the state of the market and scoured for potential opportunities for anyone looking to invest in shutterbugs.


Slowly Climbing

From 2009 to 2013, the auction market for photography seemed to be on a hard upswing, with sales revenue climbing season after season. It reached its peak with an exceptionally fruitful year in 2013, achieving $30.5 million in total sales value. But the tides swiftly turned, and precipitously fell by over 40% over the next two years.

“If you’re looking for big, quick gains in the art market, look away from photography,” summarized artnet News art business editor Tim Schneider in his analysis earlier this year.

The good news is that photography sales have resumed a modest upward trajectory, buoyed by a fairly consistent number of lots offered each year. In 2019, the auction market for photography appears to have recovered after 2018’s 10-year low, though signs for long-term growth are uncertain amidst global recession fears.


Clear Winners

Like the fine art market, there is a reliable list of blue-chip artists that regularly top the charts. Classic artists like Irving Penn, Man Ray, and Ansel Adams are dependable winners whose works continue to retain or gain in value.

But it’s worth noting that major contemporary artists who work with photography, but who are not classified specifically as photographers by auction houses, dwarf the sales of Penn and his fellow masters.

The total sales values of works by Penn and Adams in 2019 thus far are an impressive $23.3 million and $18.5 million, respectively. But by contrast, sales of photos by Richard Prince achieved $65.1 million, while Cindy Sherman’s work has generated $54 million in sales.

It goes to show that when you consider photography as its own collecting category, there is still plenty of room to grow compared to our contemporary stars.

Cindy Sherman, Fortune Teller (1993). Courtesy of artnet Auctions.

Interesting Outliers

Some artists on the top 20 list represent notable divergences from overall trends. Works by Ansel Adams are wildly popular in terms of sheer volume, with an astounding 1,167 lots offered at auction this year so far, coupled with a robust average sale price of $20,418.

Similarly, 1,160 pictures by the French master Henri Cartier-Bresson have been offered in 2019, but with a more modest average sale price of $12,572 and a 65% sell-through rate (compared to Adams’s 77%).

By contrast, the multimedia artistic duo Gilbert & George only had 44 lots categorized as photographs sell at auction this year, but their whopping average sale price of $338,118 stood head and shoulders above the competition, placing them at 12 on the top-20 list.

As for which photographers will emerge as the leaders of the 2019 fall auction season and beyond, time will tell—but it’s proven to be a rich collecting category for those willing to be patient and with an eye for long-term investment.


Want More?

Delve deeper into current market events and trends such as artist performance, artwork price rankings, and comprehensive analyses of past auction seasons with customized reports that cater to your individual needs. Set up artnet Market Alerts today to track your favorite artists, or email us to request a custom Analytics Report to delve deeper into emerging photography trends.

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