Collect Iconic Photos For Fun and Profit
By Albert Chi—
Classic and contemporary photos by photographers have become a staple at auctions and all you need to get in on the action and bid is your cellphone. But even if you don’t want to participate, viewing the images up on the block can be a fascinating pastime and you can enjoy looking at a range of work from the beginning of photography to the present. In fact, at one auction house, you can also look at past auctions and see estimated prices of images compared to what they actually sold for.
Many images, most of which were shot with film and printed on silver gelatin paper, have notes about the photographers, technical data about how they were shot, and all are described in detail—size, printing medium, when they were printed by the photographer and more. It makes for a fascinating few hours of browsing, especially when there may be more than 250 images (each is called a “lot”) up for auction. (One coming up has over 300.)
I’m going to give you a sampling in this article and then directions to the web site of one of the most active and reputable auction houses dealing in photographs and art works: Phillips. They hold auctions at New York, London, Hong Kong and Zurich locations and, whereas you used to have to travel to them to bid in person (or standby on a phone), you can now participate and bid from the comfort of you home— or anywhere else, for that matter. You can even submit an advance bid that allows you to stay within your budget and not get carried away by bidding fever.
You may find some of the works a bit beyond your means (some go for hundreds of thousands) but there are always some sleepers that can be obtained for much less…in fact a few Ansel Adams beauties failed to sell at all, but that might be because the bids did not exceed the image’s reserve—a minimum price below which it cannot not be sold.
Other auction houses such as Christies and Sothebys also do photo auctions and have valuable information otheir sites for new collectors of photographs so if you get hooked on the idea of collecting images you’ll want to visit them, too. (see Reaources for their web sites.)
And hooked you might become as this quote from the late Peter McLeavey, an avid collector, eloquently puts it: “I think there is one more photograph I have to find. The last photograph. I’m still looking for it. It’s out there somewhere. I’m waiting for it to claim me, the last photograph. I don’t know what it is, but when I see it, I’ll know it and I’ll buy it, and it will hang with all the others. And maybe then the life, the story, the quest, will be complete.”
Where do these iconic images at auction come from? Most are on consignment from art galleries, museums and private and estate collections who have invested in them and now are eager to get a return. Some images that they acquired for relatively low prices over the years are now worth a small fortune. In rare circumstances, an auction house may work directly with a photographer or artist.
Now, let’s take a look at a famous image by Rovert Frank to give you an example of an image that was auctioned off by Phillips in April 2021 (A new auction is set for October 7, 2021.) And note that all the images displayed at Phillips site can be viewed without watermarks and at large sizes on your computer screen.
Here’s the description:
Gelatin silver print, printed later.
12 x 19 in. (30.5 x 48.3 cm)
Signed, dated ‘1956’ and annotated ‘New Orleans’ in ink in the margin; initialed and annotated in ink on the verso.
$150,000 – 250,000
SOLD for $403,200
And here’s an excerpt from the catalog notes:
“I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love.”
—Robert Frank, 1958
“In 1955, Robert Frank began the series of photographic road trips that would result in the publication of his seminal book, The Americans.
“What Frank saw on his travels was a country enjoying post-war prosperity but deeply riven by racial and class divisions. Nowhere in Frank’s work are these divisions more apparent than in Trolley—New Orleans, a photograph that has become the signature image from The Americans since its appearance as the cover illustration on the book’s first American edition. The print offered here is distinguished by its large format, high level of detail, and for its direct line of provenance, having been acquired from Frank by the present owner around 1980.”
Although not all images have such extensive catalog notes, those that do add extra insight as you browse along. Here’s a listing for another famous photographer’s work:
Some of the prices may be a bit daunting but going through the online catalog is a treat because you can also become acquainted with many up- and-coming photographers, some of whose work can be obtained quite reasonably (although that’s relative, of course). But bear in mind that at one time almost all these iconic images were available for much less.
One of our Red River Paper pros was fond of recalling the time he bought several, signed prints from Helmut Newton who was selling them for $10 each on the streets of New York City. One of Newton’s images was recently auctioned off for more than a million…but there are still others available for just a few thousand. So start collecting what appeals to you, and who knows, come day they may put your kids through college.
For past auction results and upcoming auctions visit the Phillips site.
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