Issue #28  4/1/2001
Some Other Views of The Market:

I thought you shouldn't just have my viewpoint, so I shared an early draft of the above with a few of the top people in the photography world in order to get their opinions on the market and where it might be heading. They give you some of their knowledge below. Make sure you read down all the way. Ken Jacobson makes the point that all of us would want you to hear. I have always said that there is no substitute for an educated eye.

From Michael Mattis, an important collector largely of vintage material and picture opportunity for USA Today's recent article on photography:

"An economist would refer to the vintage photo market as "sticky downward," meaning that while prices go up in an up market, in a down market prices don't really go down much; rather, the length of time that it takes to sell a piece increases drastically. Much more like residential real estate than like stocks and bonds.

"As a collector in it for the long haul, I like down markets just fine: there is less frenzied competition for fine pieces, and more time to contemplate and finance a purchase -- and the dealers are less ornery about time payments!

"In contrast to vintage photos, the contemporary market seems to me to bounce down as much as up. And investors in contemporary photography should beware: there is nothing staler than "yesterday's avant-garde." Examples: prices seem really soft for much of the color work from the 1970s, and for names such as the Starn Twins who had the "buzz" 5-10 years ago. Will Nan Goldin still be as hot in 15 years--who will want to buy pictures of old people in rehab? I would guess that Adam Fuss and Sally Mann are among today's artists who will have real staying power. Personally I've been collecting Francesca Woodman lately, and I've discovered a young Beijing-based Chinese photographer, Liu Zheng, who's simply amazing."

From Bruce Silverstein, former Wall Street trader, a collector of photo modernism and a new NYC gallery owner:

"On photography as an alternative to stock: I learned a long time ago, that buying and selling art as an investment can be a tricky thing. With a stock, you place a sale order at a limit, and the trade can be done in five seconds. With a photograph, you either have to wait for the next auction, or sell to a dealer or collector. Either way, the process is more cumbersome. I have always been better off relying on my eye, and buying those pieces that I love. Those have turned out to be the best investments

in the end.

"On photography prices: I learned a valuable lesson when I was a kid. I used to buy coins with my hard-earned savings for $10-$25 dollars. I would try to buy one of each type of coin, in as best condition as my money could buy. Today, 25 years later these more common coins are still worth $10-$25, while the rarest examples have skyrocketed. This type of trend is common in most markets: American furniture, sports memorabilia, you name it. Photography is no different. A printed-later Satiric Dancer by Kertesz was $2500 ten years ago; it is $5000 today. The vintage version, if you could have found one, would perhaps have gone up five-fold in this period. The best and rarest pieces will always be in demand, and, as the collector base of photography continues to grow while being supplemented by institutional buying, those prices will grow at an even faster rate.

"There is an arbitrage between rare photographs and other art forms. As long as that unique photo is trading at fractions to major paintings and sculpture, the photography market is poised to continue to rise. In addition, the collector base of photography is growing at an amazing pace. I think that this is due to many factors. First of all, there has been an enormous increase in the number of young collectors in the photo markets. These people are drawn to the market because it is still relatively affordable to build great collections. In addition, these people relate more to vintage photographs than classic paintings because most use cameras in their every-day lives and have respect for the artists of the medium. Television images, video, the media--all have contributed to the growth of the photo market. Photographic images are everywhere in this day and age, and people can relate to them.

"The market will continue to benefit from the many museums that are playing catch-up in building their photographic collections. There is only a limited amount of top material available, which will create a "short squeeze" for these pieces. In addition, many collectors of sculpture and paintings still perceive photography as relatively inexpensive, and will most likely shift some buying into this market. Now that photography is being integrated into museum collections, sitting side by side to the masters of other mediums, photography is getting incredible publicity and positive reinforcement from the art establishment. This should continue to raise public awareness and increase the quality and quantity of collectors.

"Vintage Kertesz might be relatively high versus other masters, but until some of these unique masterpieces are selling consistently above $1 million, I think there is a lot of room.

"Vintage Henry Cartier-Bressons from the 1930s are incredibly rare and beautiful, yet they are priced at levels on a par with printed-later key images by Robert Frank that are relatively more common. Collectors need to become more savvy and take advantage of these opportunities.

"There are so many people looking for really great Edward Weston prints. The only problem now is finding them. Rarely do they reach auction. Rarely do they reach even known collectors. They move in and out of the market like ghosts, often never to be seen again.

"Aaron Siskind is not only an influential figure in the photography world, but also had a huge impact on abstract expressionist painters such as Kline and DeKooning. Yet, a superb vintage print by Siskind from the 1940s can be commonly found for under $10,000. There are still incredible opportunities out there."

From Janet Lehr, long-time NY photography dealer and AIPAD member:

"In the main I agree with your analysis. However, I feel there's lots of leg to Weegee, and I don't see Atget as overpriced.

"As perhaps the most senior member of the dealer set, I can say that photographs have proven to be an excellent hedge against the vagaries of the stock market. It doesn't take a genius to pick the 'right' photograph, if you are buying for safety of principle, but it does take a wizard to do that as unerringly in the stock market: ergo, the layman has an infinitely better chance in photography. Other artwork is not so easily chosen. A fall from favor can be for a longer time than one would like, perhaps for as much as a century. In photography, which artist has suffered such a fall? Trot out one of those artists' great images in a good print and you'll fast have the answer: no one.

"My fear is that as we pass into a middle period of collecting, where there is less of real worth to collect, the field may then loose the strength that it now has. Ten to 15 years ago success was like shooting ducks in a barrel. As that ratio lessens, the success rate must fall, and, apart from connoisseurs, the general buyer may lose interest."

From Laurence Miller of Laurence Miller Gallery, NYC, fellow resident of Bucks County, PA and long-time AIPAD and ADAA member:

"Perhaps of interest is the reality that the photo market is much greater than the auctions, that they are perhaps the tip, although the most visible, of the iceberg. Whatever happens at auction, and it sounds like Sotheby's will do great with the MOMA material, all of the veteran dealers with high credibility will continue to have good business, perhaps not as much growth, but I doubt much letdown. Each market fluctuation over the past 20 years has shaken out the speculators and the flirt-type collectors (more interested in telling you what they just purchased rather than buying something from you) and, at the same time, brought in more and more art/fine print collectors who are gradually coming to appreciate how wonderful, and how darn inexpensive, fine photographs are. Why, a collection--that's right a "collection"--of Walker Evans can be acquired for the same amount as a very large contemporary oil painting at a top gallery.

"Many people are seeing the advantage of photos. Sometimes smaller IS better. But the Gursky bubble may be for real, and perhaps $300,000 for a top Gursky in an edition of six may be a better value than a Diane Arbus (edition perhaps not known). Time will tell."

From Rudolf Kicken of Kicken Berlin and long-time AIPAD member:

"The supply of good vintage material is becoming very scarce. This development is being reinforced by the fact that exceptional collections often "leave" the market forever, like the recent group of photographs from the Thomas Walther collection that went to MOMA.

"On the other hand, there are still certain areas of photography that have not yet been discovered by the market and are therefore underestimated. Some examples are work by various European photographers, movements like Subjective Photography in Germany (Gruppe fotoform), etc. There is also good 19th century material from Germany, for example, which hasn't caught most collectors' attention yet.

From Ken Jacobson, 19th century dealer and AIPAD member:

"I read your market analysis with great interest. Probably the last thing I would be qualified to predict is the market. I would note, however, that historically, the best 'investments' are often made by collectors who are uninterested in investment. They are passionate in collecting some neglected art form while everyone at the time thinks they are mad."