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
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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