Auction Talk: London Photo Sales Continued

So as I was looking at the auction results and calculating average prices and whatnot I got a bit carried away and realised that I’d already written TOO MUCH. So splitting it up into multiple issues seemed like the best way to proceed. Already published is a sort of intro to the London May Photos sales so bouncing off that is this issue where I’ll look at some examples from Phillips’ sale and write a whole lot more.

Post Sale Sales

Before I leap into writing a whole lot, I thought I’d mention the immediate post-sale shenanigans that occur following any sale. The sales staff don’t head into auction without knowing how their sale will turn out, more or less. Prior to the sale they’ll have contacted their clients to make sure they’re aware that lots of potential interest to them are coming up for sale. So with each lot there should be a handful of people that are have registered their interest in bidding on that particular lot. Usually it works out and said people bid on said lots. With some instances though it doesn’t quite work that way. There’s always a risk of someone changing their mind last minute or not having any interest on lots at all to begin with.

In the case of lots that go unsold at auction the sales staff will scramble straight after the auction has ended. A lot doesn’t always go unsold because there’s no interest, sometimes it doesn’t reach its reserve even with a bidder. Sometimes you can tell, most times you can’t. It depends on several things, not least of which where the reserves have been set. The reserves will never exceed the low estimate and I think will be no more than 75% of the low. [1] So when a lot goes unsold but there’s an underbidder, the sales staff will contact that underbidder and offer them the chance to purchase the lot. [2]

With Phillips’ May sale there were four lots sold immediately after the auction. There’s only a limited amount of time to make these post-sale sales before the Bids department submits the book so it all has to happen quickly so that the sales can be included in the overall sales total. I couldn’t work it out with Sotheby’s because I don’t think they release stats like that so we can only speculate.

Case Studies

We can take some individual examples. Phillips debuted Korean artist Kim Heewon at auction last May with a digital piece entitled Someone’s Chandelier (2013). It was a video work that over the duration of almost 8 hours showed the candles of a chandelier burning and melting away in real time. It sold above its low estimate and while I don’t remember the HP (hammer price) the website shows it sold for £22,500. The edition was sold out, this was the Artist Proof; this also explains why the piece was sold in ULTIMATE, the showcase for sold-out, unique or commissioned pieces.

Kim Heewon, Someone’s Chandelier 01, 2013
4K Video
AP1 from sold-out edition of 6+1 AP
Phillips Online [3]

This next piece, Someone’s Window, was also sold in ULTIMATE as it came from the artist’s sold out edition. This time the piece was “just” a photographic print. Mounted on Diasec, it gives the entire (and massive, dimensions over 2 metres by 1.5, so basically life-size) atmosphere a kind of matte-glossy, almost real-life feel. However the difference with this is that it didn’t sell. It makes you wonder whether the estimate was too optimistic (£12-18k compared to a £15-25k estimate for his video work) or whether there was simply no interest for this work. I’m quite attracted to it but taste is subjective and can’t really be analysed. Also, if I could tell you how to attribute monetary value to a piece of art in a logical and reasoned manner I’d probably have a job…

Kim Heewon, Someone’s Window (Napoleon Bonaparte), 2011
Archival pigment print, face-mounted to Diasec
AP1 from sold-out edition of 10+1 AP
Phillips Online [4]

It’s not a science, predicting sales. Ironically it is more of an art, and you’re not always bang on the money (I should stop with the puns but I promise they are all unintentional). For example with Kim’s works above; first time at auction it sold well, second time at the same auction house and exactly one year later it doesn’t sell. You could almost swap around the works and wonder whether the same circumstances might have resulted.

Generally speaking (which is a terrible thing to say when talking about something as specific and anally retentive as the art market) in Phillips’ London May sale Cartier-Bresson, Newton, the fashion photography, Peter Beard, Salgado, Bill Brandt, Elliot Erwitt sold well. Meaning that they more or less sold where they were supposed to. But if we take a slightly more contemporary view of the matter (because all the aforementioned photographers are obviously ancient) then we can be a bit more specific about the works sold and the conclusions we draw. Which might not be an ideal starting point but I’ve already done the research on it and I occasionally zip back and forth between paragraphs. Which is what you do when you’re writing your thesis anyway; write the intro and conclusion when you’ve written everything else. That way it’s all neatly tied up.

Case Studies From A Distance

So, since I’m no longer plugged into the artnet matrix (just a huge digital database collating all auction results) I go based on the auction results released by the major auction houses; Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips (no apostrophe). As far as I can tell there seems to be a contemporary canon of photographers whose work is eminently sell-able. As I mentioned in the previous episode, artnet had established a list of 17 best-selling photographers at auction and I used that information against the London May sales of Sotheby’s and Phillips to capture how many of those photographers featured in the aforementioned sales: it turned out to be 8, of which 5 overlapped (the remaining 3 were only in Phillips’ sale and did well, especially the Man Ray – always a winner).


So, the contemporary photographers then: Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, David LaChapelle, Gregory Crewdson, Richard Mosse, Hiroshi Sugimoto. I have to emphasise at this point that whatever follows is not to be taken as gospel. You certainly shouldn’t assume that I’ve done extensive art market analysis to arrive at whatever conclusion I find. This is more along the lines of a set of views that I vaguely hold but if I were to access significant art market data I would be able to provide a much more in-depth or solid conclusion. That’s not to say that I haven’t actually done some research (because I most definitely totally have) but in the interests of full disclosure (!) I’m simply saying that if I had more data at my fingertips, my conclusions would be slightly more solidly reasoned.

So, I was going to say that more or less your solid bets if you wanted to purchase at auction would be a selection of the above. There’s a swathe of contemporary photographers that I haven’t mentioned because they didn’t feature in the sales and down that road madness from attempting to analyse data without actually having data lies. But if we go with the ones I’ve got here…

Photography Is A Ruff Word

So, I took the example of Thomas Ruff’s Stars series only in Phillips sales. I only had one criterion, Thomas Ruff’s Stars series so I discounted initially whether I found the results in Photographs, TCA, Editions sales, etc, and also whether they were just London or also New York based (I included both, but converted dollars to pounds for ease of Excel usage, which wasn’t that easy at all).

The Sterne (Ruff’s German) series was captured at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. So the story goes, he tried to take photographs of the night sky with his regular camera but the results were so lacking in detail that he resorted to using the astronomical research centre’s technology to capture the night sky in all its marvelous detail.

Thomas Ruff, 16h 28m/-60, 1992
Chromogenic print, face-mounted to Diasec
Phillips Photographs London May Sale 2019
Phillips Online [5]

Stars Out Tonight

So, (and I think this entire section should be titled “So” given its frequent usage) Phillips has sold 19 iterations of Ruff’s Sterne series, 7 of which in New York, the rest in London; from the original 19, 8 of which were sold in Contemporary Art Sales, 4 of which in Editions sales, and 7 of which in actual Photographs sales. That the numbers add up to 19 makes me slightly less worried about my data analysis skillz.

You can see that only 3 of the works didn’t sell, or were Bought In (meaning they failed to reach their reserve at auction and so couldn’t be sold). Of course the data set is useless pretty much without knowing their specific details; but since the majority of them were printed in 1992, with the exception of Editions’ later printing (and you’ll notice the pricing diff) they’re all more or less a variation on a theme.

Phillips auction data on Thomas Ruff sales of Sterne
Horrible screenshot of spreadsheet collated by yours truly [6]

Essentially what this shows is that a series of works such as Sterne (and the prints are BIG) has a relatively consistent market of buyers over a 13-year period. I used an online historic conversion generator to calculate the pounds price from the dollars where necessary and tended to round up above .5 and down below .5, which is obviously biased because it’s based on my personal tendencies. Anyway. The average price one of Ruff’s Sterne prints fetched at Phillips came out at £55,156, which is obviously slightly skewed because of the aforementioned conversion rates. This range of sale prices goes from the tiny edition cost of £1,100 to the enormous £122,700 (NY sale and converted so ugh). It also goes to show that the estimates have been relatively consistent over this 13 year period.

A much prettier Infographic with more or less the big points from the spreadsheet presented in more easily consumable format
Also by yours truly
Lovingly created using Canva

The Others

I’m slightly less interested in the fresh-to-auction photographers because their market isn’t so established, and is therefore harder to analyse. Using the example of Heewon Kim again, it’s easy to speculate that the reason his work sold the first time at auction had something to do with its uniqueness within the photographs sale (as in, it was was a video piece rather than a print) and his own debut at auction, meaning that it was a somewhat time-sensitive opportunity to acquire the work if you really, really wanted it. 

With fresh-to-auction photographers, which means those who are appearing on the auction block for the first time, the only way it will have been possible to acquire their work prior will have been on the primary market; so either directly from them, through their studio, or through their gallery, if they have one (if they don’t then it’s usually through their studio, see how it works?) The first time the work is sold represents the first time a price-point is set for their work. It’s against this bar that subsequent sales of their work will be marked. Of course you don’t know about private sales so calculations like this will almost never be absolute. But this explains why it’s hard to analyse photographers sold at auction for the first time. There’s no guarantee that the same person who bought the piece last year will come back for more, just as there’s no guarantee that a new buyer interested in the photographer will be found.

Artnet Analysis

Looking at the artnet graph it’s clear to see that Phillips has been relatively consistent in its spring photographs sales since 2010, which is when artnet’s graph starts. I don’t think we’re including Bonhams in this cross-auction analysis. Phillips starts low, but then climbs and continues to climb steadily until 2013 when all the auction houses experienced a setback in terms of overall photographs sales. The difference is that Phillips has clawed back standing whereas Christie’s and Sotheby’s have both dropped, to the extent that they’ve sort of ended up around the same-ish area of spring sales.

Tim Schneider, How Far Has the Photography Market Really Come? Four Data-Drive Conclusions From the Spring Photo Auctions, artnet, 2018
artnet [6]

According to artnet, if you wanted to be relatively sure that your consigned photograph would sell you’d consign to Phillips. Still, this is only comparing like for like; photographs sales across the major auction houses, not tracking sales of photographs within all departments, which is what I did for one photographer sold through one auction house. Significantly less data to find. It all still points to the same conclusion though which is that Phillips sells photographs, no matter the department. More or less.


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