Art in focus

Andy Round enjoys a developing new trend for investing in
million-dollar works of photography

By Andy Round

When Gert Elfering was a struggling student in the 1980s he would stare balefully at photographs for sale in the windows of London’s most prestigious galleries. “I couldn’t afford the pictures I wanted, so I used to buy books and posters of my favourites,” he says. “I eventually became a photographer myself in Germany before moving into television. It was more lucrative, brought more possibilities and I could collect at last.”

 

And collect he did. From the late 1980s well into the 1990s, Elfering enjoyed buying exactly what he liked which translated into glamorous photographs of glamorous celebrities taken by the 20th century’s most iconic image makers from Norman Parkinson and David LaChapelle to Herb Ritts and Richard Avedon. “I didn’t like art that required explanation,” he says. “I wanted a great understandable image that spoke to me.”

 

Elfering’s remarks in context now seem incredibly modest. In 2005 he sold 140 of his photographs for US$7.2 million and three years later auctioned 135 images for US$4.3 million. “I bought with my heart, but I sold with my brain,” he laughs over the phone from London. “It was amazing to see how the auctions shaped the market.”

This is a young market that only began 40 years ago.

The sales were arranged by Christie’s and the auction house’s head of photographs Philippe Garner. “Yes, we have seen a great increase in interest in the medium in recent years, particularly because of the contemporary art market,” Garner says. “But remember this is a young market that only began seriously 40 years ago.”

 

Recent Christie’s record-breaking auction results for individual photographers include a 1948 Irving Penn image entitled Cuzco Children selling for US$529,000; a Richard Prince Untitled Cowboy for US$2.8 million; an Untitled Film Still by Cindy Sherman for US$2.1 million; Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Black Sea for US$1.9 million and a portfolio of images of Native American Indians by pioneering photographer Edward Curtis recently went under the hammer for US$1.4 million.

 

“The highest auction prices for photographs have been achieved in the past four years,” says Simone Klein, Sotheby’s European head of photographs. “In 2006 we sold The Pond Moonlight by Edward Steichens for US$3 million. That’s still a world record for a photograph today.”

'Buy a significant work by a significant photographer and you won’t go wrong'

Sotheby’s was the first of the international auction houses to begin selling photography in 1971 and since then it has established a reputation for major sales. In April last year a total of 14 new world records were set at the US$12.4 million sale of the Polaroid Collection. Highlights included an Andy Warhol self-portrait for US$254,500 and an Ansel Adams mural-sized image from Yellowstone National Park for US$722,500.

 

So what adds such incredible value to a photograph? “Art, rarity, mystery and market forces,” says Klein. “I remember a photograph of a woman with her back to the camera taken by Eugene Atget in 1925. A couple of years ago we optimistically estimated €40,000 but it sold for €444,750. It was the most astonishing story of my auctioneering life,” Klein grins. “At the time we were right to put this estimate, but there was a wonderful convergence of great condition, great provenance and great rarity. It was record for an Atget.”

 

The auction results are impressive but compared to the art market appear reasonably accessible, especially when you consider how much multi-million-dollar Monet you get for your money these days.

 

So is photography a field of investment that promises huge returns in the future? Garner is cautious. “If you buy a significant work by a significant photographer in excellent condition, you won’t go far wrong. But you should buy because you are passionate about the subject”

 

Elfering is a living example of this philosophy. “Why would you have somebody like a dealer or a gallery tell you what to put on your walls because you might make some money? That seems strange to me like buying with so many dollar signs in your eyes that you can’t see the photograph for what it really is.”

I would spend the day with Helmut and he would say, 'Take a look'

In the glory days of building his collection, Elfering bought exactly what he wanted following his instinct and refusing to listen to critics who described his love of high gloss, high concept photographers as superficial. Today works by the likes of Helmut Newton are in huge demand. “It was different then,” he says. “I would spend the day with Helmut and he would leave a box of photographs on the table and say, ‘Take a look’. We would talk for an entire afternoon, discuss prices and I would buy what I liked. Now there are agents, dealers and galleries… to many people involved.”

 

And this is all very well and good, but with photography representing an endless range of interest where would you even start? Well, Klein recommends starting with a subject, period, photographer or concept that you love and then take it from there. Fashions change, trends come and go.

 

“At the moment there seems to be growing interest in Indian photography,” she says. “Recently Chinese photography was very hip. The range of photography is really huge even though it only dates back to the 19th century. People collect contemporary work, images by anonymous amateurs, there is a market for vehicular images, portraits or fashion photography. Art is emotional. It’s what moves you.”

 

Starting your own collection requires a level of commitment and, if you like contemporary works, a lot of space. “You need to spend time learning about your subject and discovering what you really like,” says Garner. “Find a theme, enjoy yourself, immerse yourself in your subject, do a lot of reading. Nobody can become an instant expert, so talk to people with a shared interest, speak to dealers, attend auctions, visit museums.”

A little serious study goes a long way to nurture a sense of quality and an understanding of when a work is accurately priced or wildly inflated. It also helps to build up knowledge of processes to enable an understanding of the technical methodology behind the warm brown shades that illuminated prints from the 19th century and the shades of grey that shaped photography a hundred years later.

 

But what about the authenticity of numbered edition prints how can you trust that what you buy is reliable? “There is a simple law about editions,” says Garner. “If anyone cheats about the number they say has been produced they shoot themselves in the foot. It would be professional suicide. The photography world is very small.”

 

With earlier photographs there are more uncertainties with the number of prints rarely recorded but these are usually low as very few photographers made extra copies. Another key factor to remember when you’re having difficulty choosing between your Edward Steichens and your Alfred Stieglitzs is the importance of condition. Collectors are not forgiving of prints with condition issues even those that are more than 150 years old. If you want a solid investment for the future find a print in excellent condition with a reliable provenance.

 

Elfering says he continues to indulge his photography but prefers to discover the works of unknown photographers. “If I see an image valued at US$200,000 and I bought it 10 years ago for US$10,000 it’s impossible for me to buy now. I enjoy collecting the work of young artists. It just feels better to invest money in nurturing fresh talent.”