Year in Review: Top 10 Highest Priced Photography Lots at Auction in 2019

In 2019, we reported the results from 51 auctions from around the world, providing 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 2019 are shown in descending price order, with image details, pre-sale estimates, realized prices, and venues/dates as background (images courtesy of Phillips, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Grisebach, 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 85, Helmut Newton, Sie Kommen, Paris (Dressed and Naked), 1981, estimated at $600000-800000, sold at $1820000, Phillips Photographs, April 4, 2019.

Lot 114, El Lissitzky, Self-Portrait (‘The Constructor’), 1924, estimated at £800000-1200000, sold at £947250 ($1240898), Christie’s Masterpieces of Design and Photography, March 6, 2019.

Lot 2149, August Sander, 70 Portraits from “Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts”, 1912-1932/1961-1963, estimated at €300000-500000, sold at €949000 ($1053390), Grisebach Photographie, November 27, 2019.

Lot 13, Gilbert & George, Bugger, 1977, estimated at £700000-1000000, sold at £795000 ($1041450), Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction, June 26, 2019.

Lot 40, Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1978, estimated at £300000-500000, sold at £615000 ($805650), Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction, March 5, 2019.

Lot 12, Edward Weston, Circus Tent, 1924, estimated at $400000-600000, sold at $788000, Phillips Passion & Humanity: The Susie Tompkins Buell Collection, April 4, 2019.

Lot 8, Tina Modotti, Telephone Wires, Mexico, 1925, estimated at $250000-350000, sold at $692000, Phillips Passion & Humanity: The Susie Tompkins Buell Collection, April 4, 2019.

Lot 16, Andreas Gursky, May Day V, 2006, estimated at £450000-650000, sold at £495000 ($648450), Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, March 7, 2019.

lot 44, Richard Avedon, Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, 1955/1979, estimated at $350000-550000, sold at $615000, Christie’s Daydreaming: Photographs from the Goldstein Collection, April 2, 2019.

Lot 42, Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer 99, 2004, estimated at £250000-350000, sold at £435000 ($569850), Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, October 2, 2019.

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

Top 10 Highest Priced Photography Lots at Auction in 2019 (Artist/Price)
Helmut Newton $1820000
El Lissitzky $1240898
August Sander $1053390
Gilbert & George $1041450
Cindy Sherman $805650
Edward Weston $788000
Tina Modotti $692000
Andreas Gursky $648450
Richard Avedon $615000
Wolfgang Tillmans $569850

Lists like this one are largely driven by two main factors – the arrival rate of superlative quality consignments and the aggressiveness of the bidding. This year’s list is notable for both the absence of works by Richard Prince (in years past, the top ten has included as many as 6 of his prints in a single year) and the number of “classic” or “vintage” works in this year’s top 10 (only 2 of the 10 works were made since the 1980s).

The dollar value for the single top photography lot of the year was once again below $2M, following up a similarly weak showing last year. The chart below makes the consignment issue more clear – it’s been a while since we have consistently seen the sale of $3M+ photographs.

Highest Priced Photography Lot Sold at Auction, By Year, 2013-2019
Helmut Newton (2019) $1820000
Richard Prince (2018) $1695000
Man Ray (2017) $3226500
Richard Prince (2016) $3525000
Cindy Sherman (2015) $2965000
Richard Prince (2014) $3973000
Andreas Gursky (2013) $3511835

Given the frothiness of the stock markets of late, it’s intriguing that marquee contemporary photographs have largely stayed on the sidelines in the past two years. When (and whether, given decreasing availability) these kinds of works resurface and/or return to favor is a key question we will be watching as the new season begins.

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Read more about: Andreas Gursky, August Sander, Cindy Sherman, Edward Weston, El Lissitzky, Gilbert and George, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Tina Modotti, Wolfgang Tillmans, Christie's, Christie's, Phillips, Phillips, Sotheby's, Villa Grisebach Auktionen

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