ARTICLE: Collecting: Buy, Sell, Hold

Five years ago we advised you on which contemporary photographers to acquire, and which to dump.  How did we do?

Back in 1996, the editors of American Photo noticed that a new wave of contemporary photographers was emerging as a powerful force in the art world.  Compared with other types of contemporary art, such as painting and sculpture, photography was a bargain.  This contemporary work, by artists like Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Andres Gursky and Adam Fuss, was also easier to acquire than the increasingly rare 19th-century and early 20th-century images sought after by the world’s top photo connoisseurs.  Even more significant, it seemed to be speaking to the emotional and intellectual lives of a modern generation of collectors.  In our March/April 1997 issue, we looked closely at the careers and work of the most prominent of these living artists and advised readers on whether we thought it was a good time to buy, hold, or sell their work.  How did we do?  Even our generally bullish forecast was conservative.  Who could have imagined the worldly prosperous US economy of the late 1990s – or the even more successful contemporary photography market?  Here’s an update of our predictions, along with an additional selection of five photographers we think you should definitely buy now – that is, if you want to pick up some treasures at a good price.


Cindy Sherman:

Price Range 1996: $18,000 - $66,300

Price Range 2001: $15,000 - $200,000

We said: SELL!  Oops!  We didn’t think her prices could get any higher and advised selling.  But the ride wasn’t over.  Recent shows sold out before they opened.


Jack Pierson:

Price Range 1996: Around $2500

Price Range 2001: Around $6000

We said:  Buy!  We were right.  He continues to play with the relationship between image, text, and object, and his work is a regular feature at contemporary art auctions.


Richard Misrach:

Price Range 1996: $1000 - $8000

Price Range 2001: $1400 - $25000

We said:  Buy!  We did better here.  His large landscapes and newer images of the Golden gate Bridge and skyscrapers are popular.  He’s set new auction records.


Tina Barney

Price Range 1996: $3000 - $10000

Price Range 2001: $7500 - $10000

We said: Hold!  The dark undercurrents in her photographs of affluent East Coast Society intrigue collections.  Her market’s upper end hasn’t moved, though.


1.Nan Goldin

Price Range 1996: $3200 - $5000

Price Range 2001: $4800 - $150000

We said:  Buy!  Five years ago, Goldin’s prices didn’t reflect her status as one of the most powerfully influential photographers of her generation.  That has been changing, however, and we feel more than vindicated.  Her new work, which debuted at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York in January, is considered particularly strong.


2. David Levinthal

Price Range 1996: Around $4000

Price Range 2001: Around $4500

We said:  Hold! Good call. With his images of toys hot with the Polaroid 20x24 camera, he still manages to find new meanings in familiar motifs.  (His xxx series explores the exploitation of women as sex objects.)  His work remains affordable, but collectors take note: Much of his older work is being taken off the market, so prices will move up.


3. Bill Jacobson

Price Range 1996: $1200 - $4000

Price Range 2001: $2200 – $5000

We said:  Buy!  Since our first report, museums like New York’s Metropolitan and Guggenheim have bought his work.  His latest show at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York unveiled a new body of color work, so he remains a fresh presence in the market.


4. Sally Mann

Price Range 1996: $1200 - $20000

Price Range 2001: $2500 - $25000

We said: Sell! Mann’s Lush images of her young children have become icons of a brand of modern romanticism.  Her new landscapes are a bracing departure.


5. William Wegman

Price Range 1996: $6500 - $7500

Price Range 2001: $1000 - $15000

We said:  Sell!  We can live with that call.  His images of weimaraners in human situations and costumes have long been bestsellers at New York’s Pace/MacGill Gallery.  Though they’ve been adopted by mainstream culture, they remain sardonic, baroque, and always hilarious, even in minivan ads.


6. Andres Serrano

Price Range 1996: $5000 - $12000

Price Range 2001: $8000 - $25000

We said:  Hold!  His prediction for controversial subjects made him a target of conservatives and a hero to collectors during the 1990s.  His most famous photo – an image of a statue of Christ submerged in urine – became a focal point for those who object to funding policies of the National Endowment for the Arts.  His new work, shown at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, includes portraits of women bodybuilders.  As usual, it continues to astound and sock.  This artist’s reputation should continue to grow.

7. Larry Clark

Price Range 1996: $1000 - $3700

Price Range 2001: Around $3500

We said:  Hold! The fact that his market has not increased is puzzling, given his influence over a generation of photographers.  His 1971 book Tulsa was a landmark biographical documentation of reckless youth lost in a world of guns and drugs.  When our collecting issue came out five years ago, Clark has also just directed his first film, Kids, a bleak view of New York City teens.  We thought his early work, in particular, would escalate in value.  Clark’s photography can be seen at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York.


8. McDermott & McGough

Price Range 1996: $5500 - $10000

Price Range 2001: $3000 - $10000

We said: Sell!  Are their still lifes and portraits harking back to 19th-century photography retrograde revisionism or postmodernism?  We’re still unsure, but enthusiastic.


9.Michael Kenna

Price Range 1996: $800 - $5000

Price Range 2001: $1000 - $6000

We said:  Buy!  Kenna has been a godsend for beginning collectors.  His landscapes are accessible to many tastes, and his low prices make him a good art buy.  Though he recently raised his prices a bit, he’s so prolific that there’s always a great image available at the starting price level for his editions.  His work is sold in many galleries across the US, including Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta.


10. Andreas Gursky

Price Range 1996: $8400 - $20100

Price Range 2001: $55000 - $200000

We said:  Buy!  Phew!  Glad we didn’t blow this one! Calling Gursky a buy five years ago was the understatement of the issue.  Prices for his large-scale landscapes and cityscapes have soared into the stratosphere for contemporary photography-based work.  Indeed, his images are often bid up not at contemporary art sales by collectors who also buy sculpture ad painting.  A big new MoMA retrospective that opened in March adds even more juice to this German artist’s rich career. If you’d had some money to invest five years ago, and had followed our advice, you could be rich now.


11. Joel-Peter Witkin

Price Range 1996: $6500 - $29000

Price Range 2001: $6500 - $43000

We said:  Sell!  Witkin’s images of hermaphrodites, nude corpses encased in leather harness, and other visual atrocities are probably the least likely art ever to become wildly popular.  Though they seem grotesque, however, the prints, seen at the Pace/MacGill Gallery, maintain a kind of dignity.  We thought selling was a good idea, but his reputation may grow even more grand.  A traveling retrospective is now set to open in Europe.  And a new body of work he’s called a “complete departure” may signal a new price structure.


12. Philip Lorca Dicorcia

Price Range 1996: $1500 - $3000

Price Range 2001: $7000 - $18000

We said:  Buy! Were we ever right!  His enigmatic images of everyday life have become seminal pieces, and his influence is enormous.  Auction prices are soaring.


13. Bernd and Hilla Becher

Price Range 1996: Around $3000

Price Range 2001: $8000 - $100000

We said: Sell!  This German couple’s intriguing photographs of industrial structures are among the true winners of the past decade.  You aren’t, though, if you listen to us.  Sorry.


14.Wolfgang Tillmans

Price Range 1996: $550 - $4500

Price Range 2001: $2000 - $16000

We said:  Buy! Tillmans earned a brilliant reputation by making images that combine fashion with artistic intent.  In a sign of how important he’s become – and how important photography has become in contemporary art – he recently won Britian’s coveted Turner Prize for young artists.  Prices for his work are still affordable, but wall-sized installations can cost up to $60,000.


15. Hiroshi Sugimoto

Price Range 1996: $3500 - $5500

Price Range 2001: $6500 - $8500

We said:  Buy!  His images of movie palaces and wax-museum figures are simply beautiful, and apparently, irresistible to collectors.  Recently, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his work was lauded in an issue of W magazine – meaning he’s among the very fashionable artists of the moment.  But his images, which can be seen at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, are built to last.


16. Adam Fuss

Price Range 1996: $2000 - $15000

Price Range 2001: $7500 - $35000

We said:  Buy!  Our advice was on the mark.  Last year Fuss received the prestigious Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography.  More interesting:  A recent show of his photograms sold out, and he recently set a new auction record.


17. Gary Schneider

Price Range 1996: $1000 - $1500

Price Range 2001: $4500 - $21000

We said:  Buy! His Career has boomed with a show of his “DNA” work at the ICP last year, which mixed science with art.  His beautiful prints – Schneider once printed for other artists – have a special appeal for connoisseurs.

18. Doug and Mike Starn

Price Range 1996: $5000 - $7000

Price Range 2001: $2350 - $8400

We said:  Sell!  We would have to say that we were right.  Among the hottest artists in the 1980s, this twin tagteam was last seen attending other photographers’ exhibitions.

from American Photo, May/June 2001