The vintage market for 20th-century material could be a little mixed. Most of the market still seems to be underpriced for great images, which are still in very strong demand, but not all images are being underpriced. Again rare, important images in fine condition have always done well, no matter what the economy. Vintage material from between the wars is particularly scarce and some of it, particularly European images, is still undervalued. Watch prices for some of the French and Eastern European masters. Vintage Kertesz and Atget are, in my opinion, generally overpriced (at least currently) on the top work, but most of the others from the war years are not (Doisneau, Ubac, Matter, List, Brassai, Albin-Guillot, Boubat, Kollar, Mascelet, Ronis, Krull, Izis, Cartier-Bresson, Blanc & Demilly, etc.). You can still buy decent vintage prints from these photographers for $2000-$35,000. Watch the market shift to these better priced, but still iconic image-makers. But also watch it start to distinguish between the rare and usually more visually interesting vintage prints and the massively printed later prints by Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz, among other over-printers.
Stephen Perloff, editor of The Photograph Collector, when he saw a draft of this piece commented that the market "made this distinction years ago. Neither Cartier-Bresson nor Kertesz have moved much in years for later work."
On the American side of the vintage market, look for renewed interest in Chicago School of Design photography. With a new show/book coming from the influential Art Institute of Chicago, prices, which have been slow to creep up (except for founder Moholy-Nagy), will start to reflect the true importance of this group to American photography. Prices are already moving up on Siegel, Callahan, Siskind, Lyons (Nathan, not Danny) and others in this group.
Contemporary art dealer Matthew Marks has turned the Weegee Distortion market upside down recently, but it is hard to understand how it will maintain itself when this particular body of work undergoes any real scrutiny. Before Marks, most critics discounted Weegee's multiple image prints as being rather crass and outright corny, although Weegee himself maintained that these images were art and that they were how he really wanted to be remembered. Despite Weegee's sentiments, this is a market that could see an up and down before all is said and done. Clearly his street photography is the cutting edge of his work and what collectors should seek, in my opinion.
What Marks has done for Weegee and Robert Adams, photo dealer Ted Carter of Edward Carter Galleries has done for Ansel Adams. While Adams has always been one of the American photographers whose work suffers in a down economy due to the sheer quantity of prints on the market, I expect it may hold up better if Carter has the bucks to continue to defend his market turf. He will get that opportunity next year when Christie's will offer an all-Adams auction. This spotlight will either help boost prices or deflate them.
I have felt that Adams vintage prints are actually selling at much too low a premium to his later portfolio prints. This particular market, which, I suspect, is heavily buying to decorate, has not made much, if any, distinction between vintage and late prints by Adams except on Moonrise (easily distinguished by his intensification of the negative), and even there the ratio is still very low. If institutions or a major collector or two start to become serious about Adams' work, the prices for vintage prints may rise substantially.
I have noticed some drop-offs on big Edward Weston prints during downturns, but Weston collector Michael Mattis has told me in the past that I was wrong. He maintains that what I am seeing is the effect of less interesting and lower quality prints being sold during past dips. He may indeed be correct, but usually at the very top of the 20th century vintage market there is some slight erosion on prices and liquidity, except for the mesmerizing images, which seem to sell well in any market (unlike stocks).
There is more and more interest in the early second half of the 20th century as better prints by Arbus, Frank, Woodman, Keetman and others continue to climb rapidly, although some of these names have already made very recent run-ups.