Year in Review: Top 10 Highest Priced Photography Lots at Auction in 2022

An invisible psychological ceiling was boldly smashed this past year in the auction market for photography. For the first time, a photograph sold at auction cleared the $10M mark in May, and then the same threshold was breached again by another photograph later in November. The previous auction record for a photograph was well under $5M, so these two outcomes felt altogether unexpected and frame-breaking. And while the two vintage prints in question, the first a 1924 print of Man Ray’s Le Violin d’Ingres and the second a 1905 print of Edward Steichen’s The Flatiron, were undeniably iconic photographic rarities, their sales beg the larger question of whether we have seen a seachange in the way the market for photography functions, and whether in particular crossover collectors of Surrealism and Contemporary Art will now be more willing to pay top dollar for key photographs.

Last year we tallied up the results from 76 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 photographs were on offer, but their aggregate value wasn’t enough to merit a full statistical report. In practice, this meant that more photographs continued to be sprinkled into more sales (particularly online), slowly broadening the reach (and liquidity) of the middle and lower end parts of the photo market.

In the slideshow below, the top ten highest priced photography lots sold at auction in 2022 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 Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, in varying sizes).

Lot 615, Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924, estimated at $5000000-7000000, sold at $12412500, Christie’s The Surrealist World of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs and Melvin Jacobs, May 14, 2022.

Lot 4, Edward Steichen, The Flatiron, 1904/1905, estimated at $2000000-3000000, sold at $11840000, Christie’s Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection Part I, November 9, 2022.

Lot 10, Man Ray, Noire et Blanche, 1926, estimated at $1800000-2200000, sold at $4020000, Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale, November 17, 2022.

Lot 25B, Helmut Newton, “Big Nude III” (Variation), Paris, 1980/1990s, estimated at $800000-1200000, sold at $2340000, Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale, May 10, 2022.

Lot 1, Barbara Kruger, Untitled (My face is your fortune), 1982, estimated at $600000-800000, sold at $1562500, Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction, November 16, 2022

Lot 140, Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1998, estimated at £700000-900000, sold at £942500 ($1131000), Sotheby’s London Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction, June 29, 2022.

Lot 64, Richard Avedon, The Beatles Portfolio: John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Paul McCartney, London, 1967/1990, estimated at £700000-900000, sold at £809000 ($970800), Phillips London Photographs, November 22, 2022.

Lot 33, David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984, estimated at $800000-1200000, sold at $937500, Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 18, 2022.

Lot 194, Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1981, estimated at $400000-600000, sold at $882000, Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale, May 13, 2022.

Lot 443, Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboys), 1992, estimated at $600000-800000, sold at $724500, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction, May 20, 2022.

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

Top 10 Highest Priced Photography Lots at Auction in 2022 (Artist/Price)
Man Ray $12412500
Edward Steichen $11840000
Man Ray $4020000
Helmut Newton $2340000
Barbara Kruger $1562500
Richard Prince $1131000
Richard Avedon $970800
David Wojnarowicz $937500
Cindy Sherman $882000
Richard Prince $724500

Of course, the deserving headline here is the massive outcomes for the Man Ray and Steichen prints. But it’s also worth highlighting the solid result for the other Man Ray lot in the list (a 1926 print of Noire et Blanche), whose proceeds would have been good enough to take the top spot in our annual list in any of the years of the past decade.

What’s perhaps more subtle to see in this data is the relative softness that sits underneath those three eye-catching bright lights outcomes at the top. The fact that a photograph sold for roughly $700K made the top ten this year says that the consignments this past year weren’t that deep; in most years past, it would have taken $1M or more of proceeds to get into the top ten.

The arrival rate of superior photographs always drives these top number tallies, and what the data seems to say is that Christie’s in particular was successful at digging out the key photographic rarities that sold for the highest prices this year, but that overall, the volume of top photography lots being consigned was actually smaller than usual. With economic headwinds and soft stock markets as a current baseline, that pattern doesn’t seem likely to change.

Highest Priced Photography Lot Sold at Auction, By Year, 2013-2022
Man Ray (2022) $12412500
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 table above makes abundantly clear just how much of a statistical outlier the outcomes of this past year really were – to jump from up and down from $3M (or even $2M of late) to over $12M is certainly a significant change. Whether it is sustainable depends on those next great consignments that will drive collectors back up to those heights. And as an aside, while a photographic NFT crossed the $1M threshold last year, with the recent deflation of the crypto markets, a rebuilding effort will be needed in that realm to drive demand back up to such prices.

It will be interesting to follow along to see if these few big prices create a cascade of legitimacy that effectively reprices some of the high end photography market in 2023 and beyond, with the applied logic of “if the Man Ray print was worth $12M, this print by X might now plausibly be worth Y”, and whether this energy pulls consignments into the market chasing that potential uptick. If the dam truly has been broken, the trickle could quickly turn into a flood. But balance that against a broader set of less than favorable economic signals and we get a decidedly mixed message, with up and down tussling for dominance.

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Read more about: Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, David Wojnarowicz, Edward Steichen, Helmut Newton, Man Ray, Richard Avedon, Richard Prince, Christie's, Phillips, Phillips, Sotheby's, Sotheby's

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