Reasons to collect
There are many reasons to collect art. Some people collect for historical reasons and others for aesthetic value. Regardless of their reasons for collecting, photography collectors ultimately face the real economic issues of both buying and selling images.
Photography is a medium that can be easily replicated. Because of this, original high quality prints that are signed (or stamped) and copyright protected by the photographer are rare.
Some prints are unique. In some cases, only one print was made or other existing prints were damaged, destroyed or lost. But of course it is more common that multiple prints were made. However, that does not mean that all of them are available to the market. Many prints are in private or public collections.
In the case of limited editions, the edition number is clear and is typed on adhesive stickers, hand written, or stamped on the front (recto) or back (verso) of the print or the matting.
More common are prints of an open edition. However, that does not imply that they were printed in large quantities. In reality, open editions exist mostly in numbers of less than 200, and only a few photographs have reached 700 in a photographer’s lifetime. Yet each and every one of the prints has a kind of uniqueness since they are almost always printed one or two at a time over a period of many years. Also, consider that working with chemicals in a darkroom was not many photographers’ favourite part of the process. And no photographer produced them without reason, as prints had to be ordered and paid for by clients (newspapers, magazines) or collectors.
Many people worry about collecting photographs as works of art because most have no edition number on the print. They believe that since a negative exists, then there must be an endless supply. The concern that thousands of museum-quality prints can be produced from one negative is unfounded. An artist’s prints are handmade works of art and are in a class of their own. Darkroom skills and special techniques used by the photographer are the contributing factors in the creation of the final photographic print. This process often takes hours, days or even weeks to complete.
There are many factors that contribute to real limits in the total quantity of prints produced from a negative. The three key factors are:
A photographer can only produce so many unique prints in a given year. Most of them are busy with new work and do not have the time or desire constantly to reprint their older photographs in a darkroom.
Photographers have a strong desire to produce a limited quantity of their important photographs. Purchasing a great print involves an appreciation of artistic integrity.
The popularity of collecting photographs is a recent development. Therefore, most of the great masters passed away without producing numerous prints of their best-known photographs.
The photographer or his relatives are the owners of the negatives. Some are kept in an estate. Original prints are created and approved by the photographer during his or her lifetime. After his death, there are no more originals. Estates sometimes publish new prints in editions, which are less valuable as originals but can still be interesting items for collectors. In these cases, there should be an estate stamp on the print, indicating that it is a posthumous print. Estates may also use the negatives for exhibition and book publishing purposes.
The value of photographs depends on many variables.
- Is the work considered to be of historical importance, whether in subject or technique?
- Was the work ground-breaking for the development of photography?
- Did the photographer publish books?
- Did others publish monographs or biographical books?
- Is the photographer mentioned in important reference books?
- Is the work exhibited in museums?
- Is the work exhibited in galleries?
- Is the work collected by connoisseurs and collectors?
- Photographs can be considered rare if the edition numbers are approximately:
- Before 1900: 1 - 25
- 1900 - 2000: 25 - 250 (major master photographers)
- 1900 - 2000: up to 1000 (a handful of masters, like Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson)
Around 1980 it became quite fashionable for photographers to print limited editions and photographs produced before that era are very rarely limited editions. Many photographers did not number their prints, not even later prints that were sold in galleries. However, even if a print is a limited edition it rarely affects its value.
- Is the print signed?
- Does the print bare the photographer’s copyright stamp?
- Does the print bare a copyright stamp from an agency?
- Are there titles, dates or other annotations on the print?
- Did the photographer write a dedication on the print?
In some cases there are no markings to indicate the creator or authenticity. A specialist can assist you in the valuation of these photographs.
The source of a print does not directly affect its price or value. A respected provenance, however, is helpful in determining all other criteria. If a specialist from a gallery, museum or auction house has assessed a print, that print has respected provenance.
- What are the historical prices of the photographer’s work at galleries? Take for example the price history for Henri Cartier-Bresson at galleries: Price History: 1976 ($500), 1986 ($2,500), 1996 ($3,500 - $5,000), 2001 ($4,000 - $5,500), 2005 ($13,000 - $25,000).
- What are the historical prices of the photographer’s work at auctions? Read auction house (online) catalogues and about sold lots or subscribe to online services to find previous results. Some suggestions include: www.photoreview.org/market.htm, www.artprice.com, www.christies.com, www.sothebys.com, www.gordonsart.com.
- Be careful with ‘Letters of Authenticity’ if they are not written by reputable specialists.
- If a portrait is of a famous person this might affect its overall value. But does anyone ever wonder about who the models of Irvin Penn, Jeanloup Sieff or Helmut Newton are?
- In the world of photography, size does NOT matter!