The Most Expensive Photographs of 2016

Artwork(s) In Focus, Top Lists, Photography, Art Market

December 18, 2016

It was another good year for photography on the art market, as the medium reached admirable prices at auctions and gained enough attention to be featured in several art fairs and events dedicated exclusively to photo-based works. From PHOTOFAIRS in Shanghai and San Francisco to Paris Photo and the FotoFocus biennial in Cincinnati, there are many opportunity for the enthusiasts and collectors to get their hands on a fine photographic print - apart from, of course, auction sales and exhibitions. For instance, on view right now at Tate Modern in London, there is a remarkable show of Elton John’s collection that you should not miss. Although the 2016 sales did not exceed the price of the priciest photograph, it gave some considerably good results nevertheless, increasing the worth of some of the most iconic images of our time in many ways.

Behold 2016’s most expensive photos sold at auctions.

Jeff Wall - Rear View, Open Air Theatre, Vancouver

From an auction which brought an array of avant-garde, contemporary and modern photos from the collection of distinguished French film director and producer Claude Berri came this work by photographer Jeff Wall, entitled Rear View, Open Air Theatre, Vancouver and taken in 2005. The 226 x 293 work is a lightbox that comes in an edition of 3, and it was sold for $317,148, not even reaching its low estimate of $329,673. The photographer is known for his documentary work, sometimes staged and often large-sized and exuberant in detail.

Irving Penn - Mouth (For L’Oreal), New York

During his rich career, Irving Penn produced numerous portraits of the female lips, whether for his fashion portfolios or the many clients in advertising he worked for. Smeared with many shades of lipstick, the lips appear to mimic a painter’s palette, aiming to ridicule the beauty industry’s tireless search for perfection - in this case, we’re talking about lipsticks of L’Oreal. Perhaps the lipstick was used to shut the lips, in this case? The interpretations are endless with Penn. Mouth (For L'Oreal) was sold at Christie’s in Paris for $205,791 with buyer’s premium, a little under its high estimate of $240,077.

Hiroshi Sugimoto - Baltic Sea

Known for the pictures of seascapes taken with long exposure to mark the passing of time and transience of life, Hiroshi Sugimoto formed his own genre of landscape and conceptual photography. In an abstract manner, he created the 1996 Baltic Sea as well, in which we see two clearly distinguished color fields, one being the sea and the other the grey skies - in fact, the sky in his photos is exclusively grey and never clear and cloudless. As part of an edition of 5, the photograph was sold for $382,730 with buyer’s premium, exceeding the low estimate by 22%.

Explore more works by Hiroshi Sugimoto on Widewalls Marketplace!

Andreas Gursky - Athens

Spreading on two panels, Andreas Gursky’s Athens sees the Greek capital at night, from two points of view. This would be a prime example of the artist’s conceptually rigorous interweaving of micro details into a macro structure. At Phillips New York, the work sold for $401,000 with buyer’s premium, just barely missing its high estimate of $350,000. It has also had a steady rise in price over the years, having been sold for the first time in 2004 for $260,000. Gursky is still the author of the priciest photograph in the world, the famous 1999 Rhein II shot.

Paul Strand - The Family, Luzzara, Italy

In 1953, famed documentary photographer Paul Strand visited the Italian village of Luzzara, the birthplace of screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. Over the course of five weeks, he took photos of people living there, including the family of Valentino Lusetti, one of the few men there who spoke English. Strand took The Family, Luzzara, Italy in front of the facade of their ancestral home, producing an iconic photograph which became the cover of Aperture’s 1955 monograph Un Paese. The photo sold for $461,000 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s New York, exceeding the high estimate of $300,000 by 27%.

Robert Mapplethorpe - Flag

Towards the end of his life, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe wanted to create as many works as possible, as he wanted to leave a legacy that would continue to carry his spirit long after he is gone. His 1987 Flag appears to be one of those photos, even though the artist treated it as an iconic symbol in 1979 as well. Here, we notice a more quiet tone, almost one of self-reflection, a sense of one’s own imminent mortality - and this comes from the man who spent his life trying to be provocative, daring, famous by any cost. This artwork sold for $487,500 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s, not reaching its estimated value of $600,000.

Peter Beard - Heart Attack City, 1972-1990

Peter Beard’s Heart Attack City, 1972-1990 is an extraordinary photo collage of the photos he took himself. In it, we see many familiar faces that the artist knew in person: Jackie Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe. Beard is someone who spent a lifetime going to jetset parties, which is exactly how he had access and permission to take the pictures of celebrities in the manner he did. Apart from photos, the work also includes ephemera such as an infants laced shoe, a pebble, a plastic comb, feathers, a dried pea pod, some dark brown crunched up tissue, cracker packaging, magazine and newspaper cuttings, a negative strip, a bumble bee, snake skin and a bottle top. At Christie’s London, the collage sold for $624,010 with buyer’s premium.

Helmut Newton - Sie Kommen (Dressed) and Sie Kommen (Naked)

Sie Kommen (Dressed) and Sie Kommen (Naked) is arguably one of Helmut Newton’s most famous pictures ever. On an occasion, he explained how the series presented probably the biggest technical problems, as there was a considerable time lag between the naked and the dressed version. ”I had to match the exact movement of the model to each version with the help of many Polaroids,”, said the artist. The fashion brands he promoted here were Emmanuelle Khahn, Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé, Angelo Tarlazzi and Fournier. The image sold for $670,000 with buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s New York.

Gilbert and George - Day

Exceptionally rare, the 1979 Day by Gilbert and George belongs to their 1978 series. Composed of sixteen panels portraying the duo, it is a stunning example of their highly sought-after work which features the singular color palette - trademark of their early artistic practice, in form of cool black and white set against a vibrant red. The upper panels possibly depict four transient men on the street, while the other shows the duo’s self-portrait, the very opposite of anonymous. The artwork fetched $670,000 with buyer’s premium at Phillips New York, even though it’s been estimated at $800,000.

Thomas Struth - Art Institute Of Chicago II, Chicago

Thomas Struth’s Art Institute Of Chicago II, Chicago appeared in auction for the very first time in 2016 at Phillips, selling for $777,088 with buyer’s premium and becoming this year’s most expensive photograph sold at auction. Taken from his first series of museum imagery, the photographer’s best known and most acclaimed body of work, the image calls to mind a casual snapshot of visitors inside the Art Institute, but the truth is that the artist would wait for hours, even days for the perfect shot and composition. These pieces explore the relationship between the camera and the viewer, the viewer and the art on view, the viewer and the exhibition space itself. Struth’s museum pictures surely ushered in a new visual language in photography at large.

Be sure to check out more works by Thomas Struth!

List of The Most Expensive Photographs of 2016

Take a look at the 100 priciest photos in 2016 sold at auctions below!

All images courtesy Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips, used for illustrative purposes only.

Follow These Artists

Irving Penn

Follow These Galleries

Hedges Projects

West Hollywood, United States of America

Mai 36 Galerie

Zurich, Switzerland

Isabella Garrucho Fine Art

Greenwood, United States of America