Lots of people collect photographs, and many have been doing so for decades. Some great collectors have themes, or concentrate on particular periods or groups of artists. I don’t have the budget to be a great collector, but I do have a penchant for photographs which have been used on album covers.
I was at the Photo London art fair in 2015, where thousands of people come annually to buy photographs. One of the exhibitors, a leading American gallery, was offering a picture of a red ceiling. This piqued my interest, because the image had been used for the cover of an early Seventies album I like. So I asked the price. Unfortunately, at $225,000, it was way beyond my budget.
What’s going on here then? How can a simple photograph of a ceiling be worth that sort of money?
Overall, the thing to remember is what is being offered for sale. A ‘photograph’ is probably too generic and unhelpful a term. Its not just an image. It is an art object, imbued with the aura of (and validated by) the artist, often hand made to exacting standards using a particular process (in this case, something called ‘dye transfer’).
Once we’ve accepted this premise, there are then a large number of factors driving the price.
The first is the artist. The red ceiling was by New Orleans photographer William Eggleston, who is lauded as a pioneer of colour art photography and as an early postmodern artist. A big name, and a big name can translate into a big price tag.
A second reason is the image itself. It’s a renowned one, one of Eggleston’s best known pictures, a celebrated artwork in its own right. Generally, the famous photographs by established artists will command higher prices than their lesser-known works.
A third factor is the age of the print. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the interval between the photograph being taken and the print being made, the more valuable the print. This particular example was made by Eggleston in 1980, seven years after he’d taken the photograph. As such, it doesn’t qualify as a ‘vintage’ print, which generally means made no more than 3-5 years after the picture was taken (to photography collectors, a vintage print is a bit like a first edition to a rare book aficionado). So a similar ‘vintage’ Eggleston print might cost even more than this one.
Nonetheless, as an early print, this one will still command a higher price tag than, say, a 21st-century version. But even a photograph ‘printed later’ isn’t valueless. Even posthumous prints made many years after the fact by estates after the death of the artist end up in museum collections. And museums generally know what they’re doing.
A fourth consideration is the condition of the print. This one was in good order. If it’s dog-eared, torn or faded, then the price goes down.
A fifth factor is rarity. Many photographers now ‘edition’ their prints and guarantee a limited number. But note editioning is comparatively new. So while, say, Matthew Murray editions his prints, Ian Macdonald is a little more traditional, and doesn’t. Eggleston didn’t edition his ceiling picture, and in the 70s and 80s the practice of ‘editioning’ wasn’t particularly widespread. That said, there aren’t too many red ceilings of this age around.
But note the number made is all a bit less important than you might think. The laws of supply and demand apply to some extent, but just think for a minute about the art market in general and Andy Warhol in particular. There are plenty of Warhols to go around, many tens of thousands at least. They’re fairly easy to get hold of. But they’re all expensive - primarily because they’re Warhols, not because they’re particularly rare.
A sixth consideration is provenance: is our red ceiling really an Eggleston? Was it really printed by whom – and when – it purports to have been? Is there evidence to support that? In this case, there was plenty.
There are further factors which will impact the price of a photograph, such as the size of the print. If you want to look in more detail at what can drive the price of a photograph, or would like to look at some collecting options at a much more modest, entry-level price, click one of the buttons below.