Art Market Matters: The Most Expensive Photograph Never
This episode of AMM sort of carries over from the recent issue on Jeff Koons. It actually started out life within the main body of the previous article but then I realised that the entire thing was far too long so here we are.
Back To The Start
When you type in the words ‘world’s most expensive photograph’ you don’t actually get the Koons result. I wasn’t entirely sure why this should be but can only surmise that google hasn’t caught up yet. What you do find when you type in the above words is an image by Peter Lik and about a million digital articles about it. The image he made is called Phantom (2013) and sold in 2014 for $6.5 million. A whole lot of news outlets reported the sale at the time and claimed this was the most expensive photograph EVER.
Obviously, now that we know Koons sold his own childhood likeness for a cool $9 mil the Lik story is booooooring. BUT DON’T STOP READING THERE.
I suppose the point of reiterating a story over five years old that has already been exposed to death is that it’s actually very interesting and exposes just a microbe of the manipulation that occurs within the art market en gros and why experts believe the Lik record isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
Unique Selling Point
Lik sells his prints in tourist hotspots, like Las Vegas and Maui. What happened with Phantom is that Lik put the word out to his existing clientele that he would be making available one limited edition print. And Artnet believes that the majority of his buyers don’t have the kind of art market smarts (I came up with that one, TradeMark that, please) that would enable them to make intelligent and financially sensible purchases. Effectively all they want is a large scale landscape that takes the holiday vibes back home with them. Nothing wrong with that.
According to Artnet it sold to an anonymous Los Angeles collector (unlikely in the serious sense of the word) and the haul included two other six-figure images.  The initial problem with this is that the sale was private, that’s to say that Lik sold it through his gallery to a collector and the only details that were made available are the ones he chose to make known: the price.
Limited Edition Lik
So what’s the problem? The problem with Lik is that he is artificially inflating his own market. He staggers prints in a tier structure that allows him to drive up the price of prints as he sells them. He sells prints in limited editions of 995 (not quite what I’d call ‘limited’ but whatever) and when he reaches 95% sold-out for any image the price automatically rises. This is a tactic to generate buzz.
Think about it, if someone offers you a limited edition hat or a bag that literally everyone has, you’re more likely to opt for the limited edition hat because just by carrying that ‘limited’ label it automatically becomes more appealing to you as an owner. You’d rather have something that no one else has because this is the art market and it’s all about keeping up with the Joneses.
“Until a high cultural status is produced for Phantom by the art-world ecosystem, it will remain an outlier – one that allows us to see more clearly how that system works.”Juliet Hacking, Photography and the Art Market 
The concept of a limited edition or one-off is not in itself inherently duplicitous. The art market thrives on such authentic gems because it brings in the big guns, those heavy hitting collectors in full force. But this really only applies to those who aren’t in the process of artificially bigging themselves up.
Can It Work?
Unique prints do sell strong if it can be proven that they live up to their heavy mantle. For example, auction houses may collaborate with photographers’ studios to produce unique prints of iconic images in specific dimensions (mural sized, for example) and this works to the advantage of both parties; the auction house will be able to generate a new record for the photographer and the photographer’s studio benefits from the cachet of collaborating with a high-profile auction house and big player in the art market. Works both ways, see?
With Lik, it ain’t necessarily so simple. The same image will be sold in a scale of dimensions, essentially from small to big. As you go up the scale the price increases. And as the prints sell the price increases further until you’re at 95% sold-out status and the print that started at $4,000 is now a hefty $17,500. This is a “Premium Peter Lik”. It’s a clever incentive to entice buyers to purchase before the price increases again. So you see how Lik’s artifically inflating the market for his own images.
A Ghost of a Market
In Photography and the Art Market by Juliet Hacking, the author dedicates a section to analysing the issue of Lik’s image and the subsequent sale. She highlights the key concern: everything we know about this image can be traced directly back to Lik through his press office. In her analysis it’s problematic to claim that Phantom is the most expensive work ever sold because it has very little secondary market value, which means that if you were to buy a genuine Lik and then try to sell it at auction, it would be a little unwise.
This is also true according to art market professionals, such as David Hulme, who advised against “collecting” Lik for the simple reason that his photographs “have no secondary market presence or value.”  According to artnet’s Price Database, the highest Lik has sold for at auction is $15,5860, which was for the colour version of Phantom, entitled Ghost.
Let’s just take a moment to point out that even art market insiders take some news without a pinch of salt although in this case probably a bucket would have more appropriate. You can see the time difference in the screenshots below between the date of publication and follow-up article aiming to debunk the earlier claim.
A Phantom Image
Phantom is a tourist image. Without being ungracious, it’s the kind of photograph you take in the Antelope Canyon of Arizona when you go on holiday. The structure of this sandstone canyon is undeniably attractive and picturesque and awesome and inspiring. But it doesn’t change the fact that there is little emotional or psychological intensity here.
“A photographer’s dream… known for its wave-like structure and the light beams that shine directly down into the openings of the canyon, creating a supernatural appearance.”
I suppose what I find most curious is the fact that people would want to spend thousands on a relatively touristy (a word) image instead of acquiring a piece of art history. For me, hearing how an Eggleston print went up at auction and didn’t sell because it had a crease from where Eggleston threw it haphazardly into the trunk of his car is mind-boggling, super-duper irritating and feels morally wrong (perhaps that last one is a bit of a stretch).
I think I get it. And I think it’s the fault of the art market. In this microcosm of the world where images increase or decrease in value based on the most intangible, incomprehensible, invisible qualities and you need an art advisor to help you buy art if you want to show the rest of the set that you’re a “serious collector”, it’s not totally inconceivable that people with lots of money and perhaps little patience for extensive and drawn-out research might prefer something quick, picturesque and uncomplicated.
I think, in some sense, that’s what Lik gives them. Obviously it’s not selfless because he makes a ton of money out of people who definitely won’t recover their initial financial outlay so in a way his tactic preys on the slightly less artistically-educated folk. Ultimately, it sucks a little bit for the buyers because if they ever wanted to sell it they’d find it difficult beyond belief. But it’s equally conceivable that not everyone who buys art is a hard-bitten cynic and might actually want to enjoy a pretty image that is just a pretty image. Of course, in Lik’s case the image is pretty mundane but who am I to talk. After all, I’ve never sold a photograph for 6.5 million anything.
- 1. Samantha Grossman, This Is Officially The Most Expensive Photo Ever, Time Magazine Online, December 10, 2014 [accessed 11 June 2019]
- 2. Sarah Cascone, $6.5 Million Landscape Is World’s Most Expensive Photo, ArtnetNews, December 10, 2014 [accessed 6 June 2019]
- 3. Juliet Hacking, Photography and the Market, London: Lund Humphries, 2018, p.44
- 4. Sarah Cascone, Is That $6.5 Million Photo Sale For Real? Probably Not! ArtnetNews, December 12, 2014 [accessed 6 June 2019]
- 5. VisitArizona website [accessed 7 June 2019]