Fotograf Magazine

Photography is on the rise

Photography prices in the art market are exceeding expectations

The auction sales of photographs have seen several record sums in the first half of this year. A print by French artist Man Ray has become the most expensive photograph in history and after more than eleven years, František Drtikol’s Temné vlny broke Czech photography’s record at auctions abroad.

The black and white photograph Le Violon d’Ingres by avant-garde artist Man Ray from 1924 is one of his most famous works for its artistic value and subject matter. It is a tribute to the neoclassical painter Ingres and depicts Man Ray’s muse Alice Prin, better known as Kiki of Montparnasse. The photograph employs the method of collage and depicts the model’s exposed back as the body of a violin. The image was first published in the surrealist magazine Littérature in 1924 and is one of the significant works of the artist’s surrealist period. This spring, the photograph was auctioned at Christie’s for $12.4 million and became the most expensive photograph in history. It surpassed the auction house’s original estimate of $5 – $7 million by twice the amount. It thus dethroned Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II which had until then been the most expensive photograph in history.

Compared to the market success of a nearly 100-year-old photograph, the sums paid in the Czech context are an order of magnitude lower. The most expensive photographs also include classical works; František Drtikol is the only artist whose photographs are auctioned for more than a million crowns. Last year, for example, Drtikol’s 1929 silver bromide photograph Kruhový vítr sold for 1.2 million crowns in the Kodl Gallery. It was from the collection of Vilém Trmal, the co-founder of the Czech ATA Antique Store, an auction organizer and collector known for his passion for the works of Joséf Váchal. The photograph captures a naked human body intertwining with geometric shapes, creating a play of shadows. František Drtikol also belongs among one of the few Czech artists who recurrently appear in auctions abroad. In this year’s auction at Christie’s in New York, Drtikol surpassed his former maximum with the Temné vlny photograph, which sold for a record $352.8 thousand dollars, which is over 8 million crowns. To the auction organizer’s surprise, it became the most expensive item in the auction (from the collection of the American actor Richard Gere), Drtikol’s maximum and also the highest achieved auction price for a Czech photograph in global auctions. The result exceeded Josef Sudek’s record for his shot Zátiší, signed with pigment print from 1952.

Although the sharp increase in prices of works at auctions compared to the estimate and their stable price in the art market are hardly surprising, the entire situation enveloping the successful auctioning of Man Ray’s photograph sent waves through the international art scene. The world of photography in particular sees in it a certain promise of a growing interest of collectors and investors in a relatively still young art medium, which lags behind painting, sculpture or graphics, and which, in the Czech environment, is still considered somewhat marginal. Whether this auction success story is a realistically sustainable trend even for contemporary photography is difficult to tell. While a more extensive recent research by and J&T Bank shows that contemporary art is of the greatest interest to Czech collectors, these are generally conservative investments into paintings. As such, contemporary Czech photography is mostly – barring some exceptions, such as PPF Art, one of the largest private collections of Czech and Slovak photography, now spanning over two thousand works from more than two hundred authors – systematically purchased by foreign collectors, along with local clients and public institutions. These have, since 2017, purchased also through the Ministry of Culture’s Acquisition Fund, which, however, with the new government measures to cut state budget funding, has suspended its call for submissions. Current events have thus had a sad impact on the proven programme for the purchasing of contemporary art. In recent years, the collections of public institutions have grown through the works of Ondřej Přibyl, Radek Brousil or Jiří Thýn. The last-mentioned author is also the only one whose works mainly consist of photographs and who has since 2019 regularly placed in the J&T Bank Art Index, which annually creates a chart of a hundred artists reflecting the contemporary art scene’s development. Jirý Thýn’s placement has certainly been assisted by his long-term cooperation with a private gallery, participating in prestigious exhibitions and international fair presentations. The author’s works rarely appear in the secondary market afterwards.

For the purposes of this article that illustrates the basic questions of the issues of the contemporary photography market, we have conducted a poll among photographers from different generations, private institutions, gallery organizers, auction houses and “art advisories”; we have received answers from about a third of them. Our questions touched on basic topics – for example, how does artistic photography sell in an era of a general overproduction of photography, whether there are predispositions to its commercial success in terms of, for example, subject matter or technology, and, with art dealers, which interesting mediations did they participate in during the last five years. This minor research was to serve as the founding information for this article, and it showed two things in particular. The first, less positive one speaks of the general sense of a lack of interest of Czech art collectors and the Czech art market in contemporary photography, showing itself not only in the question of purchases and rare representation in auctions, but also the interest of mainstream media, which, compared to painting, for example, do not show a market success of photography to such a degree. This can create a sense that a (contemporary) photography market barely exists here. For example, not even the foreign auction record of the established František Drtikol was covered in mainstream Czech media at all. The second, more positive outcome points to the potential of limited editions of numbered authorial photographs with a certificate of authenticity, which could help the photographic medium break through its difficult standing in the market – especially the collectors’ fears concerning technology and the possibility of infinite reproduction in the face of the authenticity of an artistic original. Limited photography editions also represent a certain democratization of art through their financial accessibility. The Fotograf magazine systematically supports the creation of certified editions, creating photography portfolios since 2011 as special collector editions thematically linked with chosen issues of the Fotograf magazine. Alongside these portfolios, Fotograf Edition also offers art by Ivars Gravlejs, Stephanie Kiwitt, Jiří Thýn, Markéta Othová, Johana Pošová and Lucie Sceranková. Then, the younger and not yet completely topically profiled Polagraph Gallery offers photography editions by Radek Brousil, Antonín Jirát, Štěpánka Sigmundová and more. Fotograf Gallery and Polagraph Gallery offer limited editions where authorial photography can be purchased from 5000 crowns.

The respondents do not see any changes in contemporary collectors’ habits in terms of subject matter or technology. From this point of view, it seems that collectors do not desire current trends, instead opting for the classics, which the auction results attest to – the mentioned success of František Drtikol, but also of Jan Svoboda. The latter author’s works have appeared in the form of a complex convolute of sixteen authorial enlargements from the sixties and the first half of the seventies, auctioned in the Sýpka auction for 720 thousand crowns. Authors whose works auction for higher prices include Josef Sudek, Jaromír Funke, Běla Kolářová, Václav Chochola, Jaroslava Rössler or, for example, Josef Koudelka, who is a generation younger. However, considering public institutions’ growing interest in contemporary photography, we can expect a greater collectors’ interest in “younger” photographers and artists who move within the photographic medium.

Monika Čejková