Art Market Matters: The Most Expensive Photograph and Jeff Koons

I was doing some reading recently and came across a figure retrieved from a report on the Global Photography Market. [1] Because I don’t pay for exclusive access to sites like ArtTactic or Artnet’s price database, I had to do some digging. As it turned out, having the name, title, and word “photograph” was enough to locate the record on the auction house website. And the honour of most expensive photograph in the world sold at auction? It goes to Jeff Koons.

Yes. I know. He, of inflated, metallic balloon dog fame. That one. Surprised? I was. But before we jump into shiny, shiny dough I wanted to look at the previous major auction records for photographs.

Records

One of the earliest photographs to break records was possibly one of the most recognisable images from the 19th century: Gustave Le Gray’s La Grande Vague, Sete, 1857. It was sold as part of the Jammes Collection by Sotheby’s in 1999. I’ll cover the Jammes story in a separate issue. Other linchpin images of photographic history (sold at auction) include:

  • Edward Steichen, The Pond – Moonlight, 1904 – sold for $2,928,000 (February 2006)
  • Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1948 – sold for $609,600 (October 2006)
  • Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 – sold for $478,400 (April 2004)

And then we’ve got the contemporary contingent of this aspirational club whose members include:

  • Andreas Gursky, Rhine II, 1999 – sold for $4,338,500 (November 2011)
  • Richard Prince, Spiritual America, 1983 – sold for $3,973,000 (May 2014)
  • Cindy Sherman, Untitled #96, 1981 – sold for $3,890,500 (May 2011)
  • Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk, 1992 – sold for $3,666,500 (May 2012)
  • Man Ray, Noire et Blanche, 1926 – sold for $3,313,347 (November 2017)
  • Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptych, 2001 – sold for $1,700,000 (February 2007)

You can tell that these contemporary photographers have built up an immense market for their work, not least of whom Gursky, obviously. I’ve never really been a fan of any of the immediate above’s work but there’s no denying that their work appeals because the market is strong and doesn’t show signs of declining.

Even a cursory glance over the date range would seem to indicate that the photography market witnessed a growth in 2011. According to a report by artnet which accumulated auction house data for photographs sales between 2010 and 2018, despite hitting a peak in 2013 global sales have since dropped to about 2010 levels. All this means is that in 2018, the total sales in Spring Photographs auctions totalled a mere $15,759,875, which is on similar levels to 2010 total sales. Pshaw.) [2]

Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II, Diptych
Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale February 2007
Screenshot courtesy Sotheby’s Online e-catalogue [3]
Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk, 1992
Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, New York, May 2012
Screenshot courtesy Christie’s Online e-catalogue [4]

The Most Expensive Photograph. Ever.

So to Jeff Koons.

With a pre-sale estimate of $2,500,000-3,500,000 it of course carried with it a guarantee. And interestingly enough, it also carried an Irrevocable Bid, indicated by the backwards double C symbol next to the lot number on the website. The provenance seems to be predominantly galleries, with the exception of one Private Collection and whomever acquired it from Zwirner & Wirth in June 2002 and consigned it to the sale. It has a suitably impressive exhibition history and featured in a similar number of literature references, although several of these were exhibition catalogues. 

Screenshot of Sotheby's online exhibition history and literature references for Jeff Koons's photograph 'The New Jeff Koons'.
Literature references and exhibition history for Jeff Koons’ The New Jeff Koons, 1984
Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening Auction May 2014
Screenshot courtesy Sotheby’s online auction e-catalogue [5]

Is It A Photograph, Tho?

It wasn’t perhaps what you’d expect from a photographs auction, although times have evidently changed since a simple image on a piece of paper was considered sufficient. This is a lightbox, something Jeff Wall uses in his work with significant emphasis. The duratrans is a kind of translucent film which lets light disperse throughout the image. This is why its marriage with a light box is such a successful one. All that luminescence. 

Hacking talks about the concept of difference between photography and artwork in Photography and the Art Market. She raises the issue of difference between photography and art, an age-old thorny topic that tracks wayyy back in the history of the medium. Trying to explain the price that The New Jeff Koons fetched at auction, Hacking raises a few points: of course its uniqueness plays a huge part in the ultimate price tag, but there’s also the question of the lightbox. As she says, if you say that Koons’ work is not photography then you are applying the same dictate to Jeff Wall’s work too. Whether you agree with the concept of lightboxes as fulfilling the logic of photography or not is irrelevant for this is a matter on which the contemporary art market is currently working. [6]

The New Koons from the Old Koons?

According to the catalogue note, this “is a highly important example of the artist’s early work, and marks a rare opportunity to acquire a piece from this crucial period of Koons’ artistic development.” [7] Ok. Concentrating purely on the visual elements, just what’s within the frame of this work and the references or connotations we might infer, we can already identify the vintage aesthetic, which might make us think of a quaint American suburban lifestyle, replete with white picket fence, freshly baked pies out of the turquoise-lacquered Chambord oven, and mother in a Simplicity apron. 

“This was at a time when I felt, or could recognise that I felt, like an artist for the first time.”

Jeff Koons [8]

Apparently, this portrait represents Koons’ oscillation from Pre-New to New, as he started to produce a kind of twenty-first century readymade (we’ll have to talk in depth about Marcel Duchamp, father of the readymade) that comprised vacuum cleaners in clear perspex cases. Mmkay.

The Artist Formerly Known As Jeff

Jeff Koons, the artist himself, is sitting at a desk with crayons next to his elbow, and leaning on a copy of Ethelbert and the Tiger by Rosemary Howland. He looks picture-perfect: his hair is neatly styled, his face is open and innocent and he’s clutching a crayon (which apparently foretells his later career success playing on the naive structures and objects that pervade a typical childhood). Described as “unspoiled, even virginal,” Koons seems to define the very era to which all artists wish to one day return through their art; that time of unburdened existence and innocence. [9]

Screenshot of Sotheby's website showing Jeff Koons's photograph 'The New Jeff Koons' which surpassed previous records for most expensive photograph in the world.
Jeff Koons, The New Jeff Koons, 1984
Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening Auction May 2014
Screenshot courtesy Sotheby’s online auction e-catalogue [10]

He gazes at the camera, a half-smile on his lips and twinkles in his eyes. In other words, he’s a well-behaved child. It’s clearly posed; the crayons are arranged neatly in their box in what might once have been colour order, and the title of the children’s book is visible upside-down. The pose adopted by Koons is no more indicative of a nascent artist than any other. He rests his arms on the table, and holds one crayon in his pudgy right hand. Children learn by copying, whether it be words or behaviour, the mind is a sponge, and it’s soaking up information like an alien life-form sent to Earth to study humans. In other words, it’s a photograph of a child. 

Insider Information

I managed to find an article that you don’t have to pay for (they’re rarer than Vibranium) and which contained very useful information about record-setting works at Sotheby’s from the very sale that saw The New Jeff Koons set a record as the most expensive photograph sold at auction. According to the New York Times (find me another reputable journal that gives me this information for free and I will use it instead) the light box was one of several Jeff Koons works consigned by Peter Brant (I should do an installment on BIG collectors, and also he’s apparently married to Stephanie Seymour) which was bought by Philippe Segalot, a Manhattan-based art dealer. According to NYT, the hammer was around $8.2 million, but BP and New York Sales Tax would have added significantly to that already astronomical financial outlay.

Photograph of approximate calculations of sales figures from the Sotheby's Evening sale in May 2014.
Calculating some sales figures not entirely accurately [11]

The Genius of the Banal

It’s equal parts frustrating and brilliant because you can totally make an argument for Koons as an artistic genius and luminary, in spite of the absolute lack of any discernible talent. One could argue that he has a talent for the banal, which is a talent in itself, right? Or, at least it’s a talent to make people believe that a vacuum cleaner could be a work of art.

The difference between Jeff Koons and Marcel Duchamp (in my opinion, obvi) is that the latter was truly avant-garde in the sense that when he presented Bicycle Wheel in 1913, which was literally a bicycle wheel fixed atop of a wooden four-legged stool, it was the first time anything of that kind had been made and defined as art (or assembled together and defined as art). This is what made Duchamp the master of the Readymade (in the case of the bicycle wheel it was an assisted readymade, essentially meaning two pieces together).

This is what paved the way for people like Jeff Koons to present their work as such and have it accepted as a valuable contribution to the development of contemporary art thanks to the path that had already been excavated by real luminaries such as Duchamp. 

If your next question to me is, But is a bike wheel on a stool a work of art? Well, I sense your sarcasm and I agree it’s not in the Renaissance mien. It isn’t what you expect. Duchamp’s reliably unpredictable genius lies in the dismantling of two separately utilitarian objects in order to fabricate one entirely useless object. By combining these two things, he unraveled their utility and dislocated the parts from their original intended use. This created a purely new object that had no relation to the originals and could not be used. Duchamp called it art, and now it’s an important and necessary fragment of our art history.

Koons has done exactly the same thing except with more garish colours and less finesse. Duchamp redefined the principle of the artist from that of artist-as-creator to artist-as-designator; the artist defines what is art. Jeff Koons has evidently mastered the art of definition with considerably obtuse dexterity.

Conclusions?

Well, what started out as an attempt to list the most expensive photographs has clearly and quickly degenerated into a mini rampage against Jeff Koons. Not entirely convinced I managed to impartialise myself (definitely a term) wholeheartedly enough but I hope I’ve managed to show something of interest as regards the “most expensive photograph” in the world (I added that last bit).

It was interesting that when I did a search for “the most expensive photograph” I didn’t get a result for The New Jeff Koons. Not sure why he doesn’t show up because the auction was a good five years ago now and it should have made headlines at the time. Koons’ market is healthy. His balloon dogs set auction records when they sell and I don’t think there’s much sign of things slowing down. Certainly The New Jeff Koons is testament to the strength of his market.

Next issue of Art Market Matters I’m looking at the case of the most expensive photograph in the world that sort of isn’t. It’s the closest you’ll get to the sleights of hand that occur in the art market and looking at why and how…

References

  1. The Photography Collector’s Handbook, British Journal of Photography: 1854 Media & Paris Photo, https://guides.1854.media/download/4526e3acddeedeab2a0ece9dbd9ee20d/ [last accessed 28 May, 2019]
  2. Max Langridge, The 24 Most Expensive Photographs That Sold for Millions, Pocket Link, 25 April 2018: https://www.pocket-lint.com/cameras/news/144306-the-24-most-expensive-photos-ever-sold [last accessed 30 May, 2019]
  3. Sotheby’s London Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 7 February 2007, Lot 62, Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II, Diptych, 2001: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2007/contemporary-art-evening-sale-l07020/lot.62.html [last accessed 28 May, 2019]
  4. Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, New York, May 2012, Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk, 1992: https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/jeff-wall-b-1946-dead-troops-5559203-details.aspx [last accessed 28 May 2019]
  5. Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening Sale May 2014, Lot 9, Jeff Koons’ The New Jeff Koons, 1984: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2013/may-2013-contemporary-evening-n08991/lot.9.html [last accessed 28 May, 2019]
  6. Juliet Hacking, Photography and the Art Market (London: Lund Humphries, 2018) p. 83.
  7. Tim Schneider, How Far Has the Photography Market Really Come? Four Data-Driven Conclusions From the Spring Photo Auctions, Artnet, April 19, 2018: https://news.artnet.com/market/photography-market-data-1269191 [last accessed 28 May, 2019]
  8. Jeff Koons quoted in Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Jeff Koons, (Cologne, 2009) p. 122.
  9. Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening Sale May 2014, Lot 9, Jeff Koons’ The New Jeff Koons, 1984: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2013/may-2013-contemporary-evening-n08991/lot.9.html [last accessed 28 May, 2019]
  10. Katy Siegel in Hans Werner Holzwarth, p. 110.
  11. Sotheby’s Buyer’s Premium Chart, accurate as of February 2019: http://www.sothebys.com/content/dam/sothebys/PDFs/buyerspremium/February-2019-Buyers-Premium.pdf?locale=en [last accessed 30 May, 2019]


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