Top 10 Highest Priced Photography Lots at Auction in 2016

In 2016, we reported on 52 auctions from around the world, providing preview and results data on a wide range of specialist photography and photobook sales as well as contemporary art auctions that included a significant percentage of photographic lots.

In the slideshow below, the top ten highest priced photography lots sold at auction in 2016 are shown in descending price order, with image details, pre-sale estimates, realized prices, and venues/dates as background (images courtesy of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, in varying sizes). While it is altogether possible that there were photographs (or sets of photographs) in other secondary auctions that we didn’t report on that also fetched significant prices last year, we’d like to think that this list represents the vast majority of the mainstream photography transactions that took place in the past 12 months. (If we’ve missed any outcomes of importance, please add them in the comments area for the benefit of all.)

Lot 57B, Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 2000, estimated at $2500000-3500000, sold at $3525000, Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale (New York), May 10, 2016.

Lot 3B, Richard Prince, Untitled (Fashion), 1982, estimated at $1500000-2000000, sold at $2853000, Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale (New York), May 10, 2016.

Lot 4B, Richard Prince, Untitled (Fashion), 1982-1984, estimated at $1000000-1500000, sold at $2405000, Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale (New York), May 10, 2016.

Lot 31, Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1997, estimated at $1200000-1800000, sold at $1452500, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction (New York), November 17, 2016.

Lot 58, Cindy Sherman, Untitled #216, 1989, estimated at $1000000-1500000, sold at $1032500, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction (New York), November 17, 2016.

Lot 202, Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1999, estimated at $800000-1200000, sold at $967500, Christie’s First Open Post-War and Contemporary Art Sale (New York), September 28, 2016.

Lot 18, Gustave Le Gray, Bateaux quittant le port du Havre (navires de la flotte de Napoleon III), 1856-1857, estimated at $300000-500000, sold at $965000, Christie’s Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs Sale (New York), February 17, 2016.

Lot 452, Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1998, estimated at $800000-1200000, sold at $965000, Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Sale (New York), May 11, 2016.

Lot 42, Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995-2004, estimated at £150000-200000, sold at £755000 ($928650), Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction (London), February 10, 2016.

Lot 67, Thomas Struth, Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago, 1990, estimated at £100000-150000, sold at £635000 ($781050), Phillips’ Photographs Auction (London), November 3, 2016.

Here’s the aggregate data in table form, for easier comparison:

Top 10 Highest Priced Photography Lots at Auction in 2016 (Artist/Price)
Richard Prince $3525000
Richard Prince $2853000
Richard Prince $2405000
Richard Prince $1452500
Cindy Sherman $1032500
Richard Prince $967500
Gustave Le Gray $965000
Richard Prince $965000
Ai Weiwei $928650
Thomas Struth $781050

Lists like this one are largely driven by two main factors – the arrival rate of superlative quality consignments and the aggressiveness of the bidding. 2016 seems to have been an uneven year without much depth, led by a handful of Richard Prince prints of cowboys and fashion models that drew intense interest (and prices), and followed by a more muted set of additional images and outcomes that filled in the rest of list. A Thomas Struth museum image set the bottom edge of list with just under $800K in proceeds, the lowest cut off figure in several years (the bubble was at $900K in 2015 here, $1.6 million in 2014 here, and $1.3 million in 2013 here as reference).

While scarcity of these most coveted lots remains high (even as tastes subtly evolve), if we take these results as indicators of overall mood, it appears that consignors and buyers largely opted for caution this past year, holding back the breadth of their photographic offerings and letting loose just those works with an undeniable (and bankable Contemporary Art) draw. As we look ahead to 2017, given the potential for volatility in the financial markets, this steadying price consolidation (at least in the photography market) seems likely to continue.

Read more about: Ai Weiwei, Cindy Sherman, Gustave Le Gray, Richard Prince, Thomas Struth, Christie's, Phillips, Sotheby's, Sotheby's

One comment

  1. Francesco Bruno Solari /

    I do not understand how you can publish such a simplistic, misleading and truncated view of the photography market. As you know, the auction houses, on which you base your results, does not sell Prince or Weiwei (who are not photographers) in their Photography catalogs, but in their Contemporary Art sales. You will not find them either at Photography fairs. Just because an artist uses the photography as a medium for their art does not make them photographers, or indicators in the Photography market. Or else, why not base your pricing system on artists that work on “canvas”.

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