Investing in rare photography

Andy Round enjoys a developing new trend for investing in photography. [20 images available on request].

When Gert Elfering was a struggling student in the 1980s he used to stare balefully at photographs for sale in the windows of London’s most prestigious galleries. “I couldn’t afford the pictures I wanted, so I used to buy books and posters of my favourites,” he says. “I eventually became a photographer myself in Germany before moving into television. It was more lucrative, brought more possibilities and I could collect at last.”

And collect he did. From the late 1980s well into the 1990s, Elfering enjoyed buying exactly what he liked which translated into glamorous photographs of glamorous celebrities taken by the last century’s most iconic image makers from Norman Parkinson and David LaChapelle to Herb Ritts and Richard Avedon. “I didn’t like art that required explanation,” he says. “I wanted a great understandable image that speaks to me and myself.”

Elfering’s remarks in context now seem modest. In 2005 he sold 140 of his photographs for US$7.2 million and three years later auctioned 135 images for US$4.3 million. “I bought with my heart, but I sold with my brain,” he laughs. “It was amazing to see how the auctions shaped the market.”

The sales were arranged by Christie’s and the auction house’s head of photographs Philippe Garner. “Yes, we have seen a great increase in interest in the medium in recent years, particularly because of the contemporary art market,” he says. “But remember this is a young market that only began seriously 40 years ago.”

Recent Christie’s record-breaking auction results for individual photographers include a 1948 Irving Penn image entitled Cuzco Children selling for US$529,000; a Richard Prince Untitled Cowboy for US$2.8 million; an Untitled Film Still by Cindy Sherman for US$2.1 million; Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Black Sea for US$1.9 million and a portfolio of images of Native American Indians by pioneering photographer Edward Curtis went under the hammer for US$1.4 million.

“The highest auction prices for photographs have been achieved in the past four years,” says Simone Klein, Sotheby’s European head of photographs. “In 2006 Sotheby’s sold The Pond Moonlight by Edward Steichens for US$3 million. That’s still a world record for a photograph today.”

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