A photo finish to remain in the frame

Financial Times, May 19 2007

Photography is coming of age for the serious collector, finds Kathryn Tully

On a balmy New York evening at the end of April, during Christie's annual photography week in New York, a group of collectors and dealers gathered to bid for the work of Horst P Horst, most famous for his work as a fashion photographer for Vogue from the 1930s to the 1990s.

His photographs are undeniably lovely, exuding the glamour of another era, but also an elegance, simplicity and sophistication that is not necessarily captured in modern magazine spreads. In the words of Tom Ford, the former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, "everything about Horst resonates with true style, and that to my mind is irresistible".

Bidding on "Mainbocher Corset, Paris, 1939", the lot with the highest estimate of $100,000 to $150,000, one of a series of five prints and the last photograph Horst took before leaving Paris before the second world war, did not disappoint. Eventually a telephone buyer won out.

Perhaps paying $288,000 for one photograph seems steep, even if it is of a beautiful woman wearing a corset. But Horst's work, and that of other fashion photographers, represents one of the most undervalued parts of the photography market.

Horst may have photographed Cy Twombly, Gertrude Stein, Noel Coward and Coco Chanel, and even inspired Madonna's 1990 video for her single "Vogue", but iconic photos of the rich and famous can be surprisingly cheap. One lot at the Christie's sale, a photograph of Gloria Vanderbilt, the debutante, taken in 1940, sold for $10,000.

"For a long time in the art world, fashion photography was almost considered a dirty word, but now the works of photographers such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Horst are really being viewed as a reflection of the culture of the time," says Joshua Holdeman, international director of Christie's New York photography department.

The works of Irving Penn now sell at auction for multiples of what they were selling for three years ago.

"Any connotation that this was more fashion than art has been removed," Holdeman says. "As fashion photographers are making the migration into the lexicon of the art world, they've been reclassified in the history of art, and their prices are continuing to increase. Their work is extraordinarily undervalued at the moment and there's a huge amount of catching up to do."

Indeed, the photography market as a whole is still young. It is only now meriting proper attention among more established collecting fields and attracting new buyers. Museums are also spending more time building departments, collections and putting important photography exhibitions together, and this has helped to raise the profile of the medium. In the realm of fashion photography alone, there have been two retrospectives of the work of Avedon at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, an exhibition of more than 200 photos, closed at the Brooklyn Museum in January after a four-month run.

"Over the past two decades, the market has been growing steadily, with prices increasing on average every year," says Chris Mahoney, senior vice-president at Sotheby's in New York, which held a major photography sale in April. "Over the past five years, that growth has accelerated and we've started to see some real break-out prices."

Now record prices for individual artists are being smashed at auction all the time. That includes Edward Steichen's "The Pond-Moonlight", which sold for more than $2.9m at Sotheby's last year, also setting a world record for the most ever fetched for a photograph at auction. "Breaking the $1m dollar mark was a very big moment and now there are a number that are sold over that," Mahoney says.

This begins to bring photography close to the value range of more established collecting fields, but it remains relatively cheap, particularly when "best in class" works by an iconic photographer can still be purchased for a few thousand dollars. "We're still dealing with comparatively small amounts of money. If you're coming from [the] impressionist or contemporary art arena where to get something of high calibre, say a Cezanne painting, you need to pay millions of dollars, certainly you can get something in the photo market that will look like a bargain," Mahoney says.

That is partly because, unlike the more established markets for impressionist art, there are still a great many discoveries to be made in the world of photography and in photography scholarship. Mahoney cites the example of the sale of photos by the French photographer Eugene Cuvelier, which raised $2.89m at Sotheby's last month. "His images rank among the best 19th-century photographs ever taken and yet he's someone about whom we know very little. It's exciting to research a group like that to be able to build on the work that's already there."

Holdeman thinks that the people now acquiring photography at the highest levels are post-war and contemporary art collectors, rather than photography buyers, but the market is becoming deep and diverse. "I was looking at the people in the room who were active in the Horst sale and there were a few names that I recognised, but there were some people there who were spending lots of money who I'd never heard of. That's a good sign."

This is an accessible medium, but there are obvious things to consider when buying high-end photographs. Whether it is signed and stamped, whether the print is in mint condition or whether it has been left in direct sunlight for the past 25 years, how many editions there are of the print, whether they are early or later editions, are all factors to consider. "People make the claim that every photograph of a given negative is the same, when really nothing could be further from the case," Mahoney says. "Each print is unique, the photographer's printing style will change, the paper style will change, their vision or interpretation will change."

How much these issues impact value varies from artist to artist. "You can have late editions of prints of which there are 75, yet one in mint condition could still fetch $180,000 for some artists. We've also seen prints by other artists where there's only one in existence that only bring in $4,000 to $5,000," Holdeman says. "For many of the people who are spending a lot of money on photography at the moment, they're more interested in photographs for their cultural and artistic significance," he says.

Mahoney advises that people just starting to build photography collections should start by doing lots of homework on whatever artist, genre or era they are interested in. "If you are interested in American photographer Berenice Abbot's black and white photos of New York, for example, find out what types of prints she made at what time, how her printing style changed during her life, what the price differences are."

Finally, once they have set their sights on a print they like, would-be buyers need to get up close and personal with the work itself. "Ask to have the photos taken out of the frame. Turn it over and see if it is stamped. Ask lots of questions before you buy."

Like anything else, it is an investment that needs careful consideration. The chances are, though, that if you ended up with one of Horst's images on your wall, you would not regret it.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007