Year in Review: Top 10 Highest Priced Photography Lots at Auction in 2023

For much of the past year, in my rounds through gallery shows and art fairs, I have anecdotally heard rumbles about slowing demand for photography, about much of photography being “out” at the moment, and other muted tales of woe, but without looking at the private sales books of gallery owners, it’s difficult to get a feel for just how much of a slowdown was actually occurring, and whether it was driven by broad economic malaise or something more intrinsic to the medium. And as the year passed, in tracking the auction data from sale to sale, I had an inkling that the numbers weren’t quite as frothy as we had seen in years past, but again, I hadn’t taken the time to tease out the patterns or conclusions.

Last year we tallied up the results from 81 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.

While 2022 was a blockbuster year for photography at auction, with a 1924 print of Man Ray’s Le Violin d’Ingres finding a buyer at an astonishing $12.4M, with a 1905 print of Edward Steichen’s The Flatiron close on its heels at $11.8M, in 2023, the results were altogether more modest. The top photography lot of the year was a 1999 Richard Prince cowboy print, clocking in at $1.56M. That figure was the lowest top lot amount we have seen in the past decade, and decently clear evidence of a slowdown, at least in the top end of photography market.

In the slideshow below, the top ten highest priced photography lots sold at auction in 2023 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 and Sotheby’s, in varying sizes, with no top ten lots from Phillips this year).

Lot 25C, Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1999, estimated at $1500000-2000000, sold at $1562500, Christie’s A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection, Part I, May 17, 2023.

Lot 144, Gerhard Richter, Strip, 2015, estimated at $2000000-3000000, sold at $1270000, Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction, November 15, 2023.

Lot 101, Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Out of your mind) and Untitled (In your face), 1989, estimated at £500000-700000, sold at £889000 ($1120140), Sotheby’s London Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction, March 1, 2023.

Lot 141, John Baldessari, Source, 1987, estimated at $700000-1000000, sold at $1079500, Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction, November 15, 2023.

Lot 24B, Diane Arbus, A box of ten photographs, 1970/1973, estimated at $900000-1200000, sold at $1008000, Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale, May 15, 2023.

Lot 26B, William Eggleston, Untitled, 1970, estimated at $1000000-1500000, sold at $1008000, Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale, May 15, 2023.

Lot 137, Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #48, 1979, estimated at £600000-800000, sold at £762000 ($960120), Sotheby’s London Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction, featuring Face to Face: A Celebration of Portraiture, June 27, 2023.

Lot 28, Robert Frank, Charleston S. C., 1955/1950s or early 1960s, estimated at $250000-350000, sold at $952500, Sotheby’s Pier 24 Photography from the Pilara Family Foundation Sold to Benefit Charitable Organizations Evening Sale, May 1, 2023.

Lot 423, Richard Prince, Untitled (Fashion), 1982-1984, estimated at $700000-1000000, sold at $762000, Sotheby’s Contemporary Day Auction, November 16, 2023.

Lot 27C, Andreas Gursky, Chicago, Board of Trade, 1997, estimated at $600000-800000, sold at $756000, Christie’s A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection, Part I, May 17, 2023.

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

Top 10 Highest Priced Photography Lots at Auction in 2023 (Artist/Price)
Richard Prince $1562500
Gerhard Richter $1270000
Barbara Kruger $1120140
John Baldessari $1079500
Diane Arbus $1008000
William Eggleston $1008000
Cindy Sherman $960120
Robert Frank $952500
Richard Prince $762000
Andreas Gursky $756000

What the softness in this list seems to point to is a holding back of top consignments – while many of the photographs in the list above fit the label of being photographic icons, many are somewhat secondary works by well known names, with the real blockbusters (vintage or contemporary) nowhere in sight. Which begs the question of why those top tier consignments have gone missing, and the resulting chicken and egg conundrum – is the market soft because there are no attractive consignments or are there no consignments because the market is soft? Or both?

Highest Priced Photography Lot Sold at Auction, By Year, 2013-2023
Richard Prince (2023) $1562500
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 puts a point on just how different this year’s results are from last year’s. In last year’s auction summary, I wondered about whether the high prices for the Man Ray and Steichen prints in 2022 would cascade further, pulling in more high end lots to capitalize on a flow of upward repricing taking place – that doesn’t seem to have occurred. Instead, with persistent inflation and a possible recession dogging the economic news in the past year, the well seems to have essentially run dry. With a bit more optimism providing a rising tide of late, it will be interesting to see if the top photography consignments come out to play in 2024, or stay hunkered down for another year.

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Read more about: Andreas Gursky, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Gerhard Richter, John Baldessari, Richard Prince, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Christie's, Sotheby's, Sotheby's

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