Vintage Photographs - The Collector's Market: The history of photography is relatively brief. The history of collecting photography is even shorter. Until the 1970s, photography collecting had been the preserve of a small group who recognized the merits of fine photography and were willing to pay for it. All that changed in the space of a few years. Thirty years ago, for example, there were a handful of galleries in the United States devoted to photography. Today there are more than 500 and the field continues to grow.

 

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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals MagazineFine Art > Feature story:
 Vintage Photographs - The Photo Collector's Market
 


Collecting Vintage Photographs Series

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COLLECTING VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPHS

The Photo Collectors Market

 The history of photography is relatively brief. The history of collecting photography is even shorter. Until the 1970s, photography collecting had been the preserve of a small group who recognized the merits of fine photography and were willing to pay for it. All that changed in the space of a few years. Thirty years ago, for example, there were a handful of galleries in the United States devoted to photography. Today there are more than 500 and the field continues to grow.

 The growth of the fine photography market has been accompanied by a breathtaking rise in values. In the 1960s, only a handful of photographers could command respectable prices for their work-and then only from a small pool of collectors. The explosion of collecting since then has steadily driven prices skyward.

 Enough time has elapsed since the collectors market took off in the 1970s for a canon of great artists to emerge. Like the Old Masters of painting, these acknowledged masters represent a relatively safe (though pricey) investment. After a terrific run up in the last three decades, these blue chip artists will probably command steadily higher prices in years to come.

In 1999, Butterfields established new auction records, including works by the California modernist Imogene Cunningham. The gelatin silver print Triangles, 1928, signed and dated with Cunningham's Mills College label attached brought $222,500. Calla, circa 1925, sold for a record $167,500.

The novice collector should not be put off, however, by the high prices commanded by some works. There are a wealth of opportunities for novice collectors to purchase works by acknowledged masters and new talent for a relatively low initial investment.

It's important to realize that the market for photography is still fluid and subject to the vagaries of trends and fashion. Older artists are still being rediscovered while others are undergoing reassessment. For the novice collector, I advise caution when considering an artist who peaked in the last three decades. One example of an artist who may have peaked early is Robert Mapplethorpe. After enjoying a certain notoriety in the late 1980s and early 1990s for his graphic images, interest in Mapplethorpe's work seems to be declining. Of course, it's always difficult to judge the staying power of an artist who's enjoying a current vogue. But with a reproducible, mutable medium like photography, there's the added danger with living artists that they'll fall victim to "Salvador Dali disease" (so-called because of the famous surrealist's unfortunate decision to spend the last years of his life flooding the market with signed prints).

 The bottom line is that the market likes older artists whose canon is complete and whose stature has stood the test of time. This is not intended to discount the significance of newer artists-both established names and new artists whose work already commands hefty prices in galleries around the world. But for the novice collector, reading the tea leaves and knowing how history will judge these artists is more difficult than collecting the blue chips of the photography world.

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