2021 felt like a year of reassessment and rebuilding in the auction market for photography. Coming off the disrupted year of 2020, where the lockdowns in March upended the typical schedules and the auction houses scrambled to move sales online, 2021 felt somewhat more settled and predictable.
Last year we tallied up the results from 67 auctions around the globe, providing data on a wide range of specialist photography and photobook sales, as well as contemporary art auctions that included a significant percentage of photography lots. We also tracked another dozen or so sales where photography was on offer, but the aggregate value wasn’t enough to merit a full statistical report. In practice, this meant that more photographs were starting to be sprinkled into more sales (particularly online), slowly broadening the reach (and liquidity) of the middle and lower end parts of the market.
In the slideshow below, the top ten highest priced photography lots sold at auction in 2021 are shown in descending price order, with image details, pre-sale estimates, realized prices (including buyer’s premiums), and venues/dates as background (images courtesy of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, in varying sizes).
Here’s the aggregate data in table form, for easier comparison:
|Top 10 Highest Priced Photography Lots at Auction in 2021 (Artist/Price)|
|William Henry Fox Talbot||$1956000|
Two noteworthy headlines emerge from the data this year. The first is the return of the $3M+ photograph, last spotted in 2017 (see below).
Actually two lots – one a Cindy Sherman centerfold, the other a Richard Prince cowboy – topped the $3M threshold this year, signaling that top consignors were comfortable enough with the relative stability of the market to put high quality material up for sale. The arrival rate of superior photographs always drives these top number tallies, and this year was no different; for comparison, last year’s top lot from Richard Avedon (a world record for the artist) would have taken sixth place this year.
|Highest Priced Photography Lot Sold at Auction, By Year, 2013-2021|
|Cindy Sherman (2021)||$3150000|
|Richard Avedon (2020)||$1815000|
|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|
The other important auction event of the past year was the first major intersection between the auction market for photography and the fast-moving world of cryptocurrencies and NFTs. An NFT from Justin Aversano’s Twin Flames series jumped up over $1M (paid in ETH) to catch the last spot in this year’s top ten. While NFTs from the same series had been changing hands at hefty prices in various other online marketplaces in the months prior, this particular sale occurred at Christie’s in October, adding a layer of further legitimacy and public recognition to the moment. It seems obvious that more photographic NFTs will sift into the traditional auction markets in the coming year, as encouraged by the major houses, further blurring the previous boundaries.
But with a new chapter in the ongoing pandemic now upon us, a reforming cloud of uncertainty could unsettle the world auction markets for photography through at least the upcoming spring season, pulling many back into the mode of waiting and watching. At some point, how connoisseur-driven patience and crypto-driven speed and exuberance ultimately find cross-over equilibrium in the world of photography will be an evolving story worth watching. Hopefully broader stability in health and economics will return again soon, making more headroom for such discussions.