Today we are going to show you a list of photos that were auctioned for mad, mad money. As those smart and sophisticated people in the art scene used to say: good art ain’t cheap. So be ready to get riled up, because we are taking you for a ride that will leave impressionable minds on the fainting couch.
While the definition of good art remains a matter of heated debate, the things that make an art piece worth bazillions are more easily described. The history of the piece, the reputation of its creator, and previous sales records can launch a professional photo into the seven-digit range. If the artwork has broken new ground or is unique in some other way, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will top the price charts.
Dust off your critical lens and check out these masterpieces of photography, arranged in order of increasing price. Are the photos really worth their scandalous price tags? What do you think?
1. Thomas Struth, Pantheon, Rome (1990)
Sale Price: $1,810,000 (Sotheby’s, 2016)
Photographer Thomas Struth is best known for his series of museum photographs. Set to explore the connection between art and the audience viewing it, Struth managed to unite people in the paintings and people in the crowd in a single frame. You can meditate on the idea of the “art piece that shows people looking at people in an art piece”, which makes you a “viewer of art looking at viewers of art” until your mind starts bending Inception-style.
2. Unknown, Billy the Kid (1879)
Sale Price: $2,300,000 (Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction, 2011)
A tintype of the American outlaw William Henry McCarty Jr, better known as Billy the Kid, is the only confirmed photo of the most notorious gunslinger in the Old West. A few other images thought to depict him are disputed.
3. Andreas Gursky, Paris, Montparnasse (1993)
Sale Price: $2,416,475 (Sotheby’s, 2013)
Andreas Gursky loves large photos overflowing with small details that make you feel like you’re drowning under a mountain of man-made clutter. By cropping the ends of the frame, Gursky has created the panic-inducing illusion of an endless apartment building that towers above the viewer.
4. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #153 (1985)
Sale Price: $2,770,500 (Phillips, 2010)
Cindy Sherman always wanted to play with different identities. A skilled photographer and a shape-shifting performer, Sherman has created eccentric photographs of herself in different settings, inspired by films, magazines and ads.
5. Andreas Gursky, Los Angeles (1998)
Sale Price: $2,900,000 (Sotheby’s, 2008)
One of the largest panoramic shots by Gursky. The City of Angels, famous for its fast-paced lifestyle, is calm and motionless in this night view.
6. Edward Steichen, The Pond – Moonlight (1904)
Sale Price: $2,928,000 (Sotheby’s, 2006)
Steichen has created an illusion of color by using a special process called gum printing on a black and white negative. Only three prints of this vintage photo are known to exist; the other two are in museums.
7. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #48 (1979)
Sale Price: $2,965,000 (Christie’s, 2015)
Here Sherman imitates a typical female character from 50s B movies. An innocent-looking girl faces away surrounded by dark, almost sinister scenery, which leaves viewers with many questions.
8. Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy) (2000)
Sale Price: $3,077,000 (Sotheby’s, 2014)
Richard Prince is infamous for his art appropriation. He photographs, scans and copies others’ photos and then edits them to stir up controversy. This image of a tough cowboy on horseback is a photo of a Marlboro magazine ad with the text removed.
9. Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade III (1999)
Sale Price: $3,298,755 (Sotheby’s, 2013)
Brokers in brightly colored jackets frantically move around the trading floor. To create the appearance of a human anthill, Gursky exposed some areas multiple times and then digitally combined them into a single image. The original image is so detailed, you can read the text on the computer screens.
10. Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001)
Sale Price: $3,346,456 (Sotheby’s, 2007)
Gursky makes the list once more with his 2001 diptych (a two-part art piece). This is one of his most famous photographs, taken in an American ‘99 Cents Only’ store. With its enhanced colors and mathematical precision, the image shows the triumph of consumerism over human values.
11. Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk (1992)
Sale Price: $3,666,500 (Christie’s, 2012)
Fascinated by historical battle paintings, Jeff Wall always wanted to recreate their monumental, dramatic effect with photography. This image is a staged war scene that shows a Red Army patrol come back to life after being ambushed near Moqor, Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War. The genre is best described as epic horror.
12. Gilbert & George, To Her Majesty (1973)
Sale Price: $3,765,276 (Christie’s, 2008)
Photographers Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore are rarely seen separately. They insist that art is everything they do and call themselves ‘living sculptures’. To Her Majesty is a collage of 37 photos of Gilbert and George about to get drunk.
13. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #96 (1981)
Sale Price: $3,890,500 (Christie’s, 2011)
Here Sherman adopts the persona of a teenage girl on the verge of blossoming into a woman. She holds a torn newspaper page with personal dating ads. As with her other works, Sherman invites viewers to ask questions about the character she portrays.
14. Andreas Gursky, Rhein II (1999)
Sale Price: $4,338,500 (Christie’s, 2011)
The verified record for the most expensive photograph ever sold belongs to Andreas Gursky.
To create an accurate artistic representation of the modern river, Gursky had to digitally remove several buildings and people walking dogs on the bank of the Lower Rhine. Impeccable landscape makes this image unique. You will not be able to get the same view, even if you visit the spot where the photo was taken.
15. Peter Lik, Phantom (2014)
Sale Price: $6,500,000 (unverified)
Peter Lik is known for his award-winning nature photography and shameless self-promotion. In 2014, he claimed to have sold a photo of a dust cloud in a human-like form swirling inside a sunlit cavern.
The buyer was private and anonymous and no documentary proof has ever been presented. Lik is often lambasted by fellow photographers and critics who say that he targets gullible novice art collectors and inflates prices. Well, making money is art too.
Bonus: Kevin Abosch, Potato #345 (2010)
Sale Price: $1,080,000 (unverified)
Celebrity photographer Kevin Abosch has a soft spot for potatoes. According to him, potatoes are like people… all different but easily identifiable as the same species. This portrait of a potato is shot in Abosch’s trademark manner, against a deep black background.
Enchanted by the handsome Irish spud, an unnamed European businessman was quick to part with his money. There is a rumor that the buyer was not sober when he made the decision.
It’s worth mentioning that all the prices in the list are presented as at the time of sale, without adjustments for inflation. We have also not included another photo by Richard Prince: Spiritual America (1981). It was sold for $3,973,000 at Christie’s in 2014, making it the second most expensive photo with a verified sale. It is probably the most controversial photo of our time. Look it up, if you dare.