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The Art Photograph Sold for 6.5 Million Dollars

In the few days since the sale for $6.5 million of American-based Australian photographer Peter Lik’s “Phantom” there have been the usual trope arguments about art photography lacking in worth. This argument has raged for over a century.

Here’s some news for you; this argument won’t be resolved in the near future. Ultimately “Phantom” is the most valuable photograph because the market says so. The market doesn’t need any photographer’s validation about merit or value. That sale is the only validation required.

Part of the problem is most photographers don’t understand the art photography market. They understand photographs. It really isn’t up to photographers to decide what is (or isn’t) fine art or to haggle about the photograph’s value. There is this thing we’ve been experimenting with for a few hundred years… we call it the free market. That free market decides what is art and the value of things sold within the art market. If the gallery or auction house achieved that price from the market, then that photograph is, by definition, worth that amount of money.

The question then becomes one of “who in the real world paid the $6.5 million?”

I’m sorry to burst any photographer’s bubble here, but people don’t pay even moderate sums based solely on the pretty picture paradigm. These pictures aren’t posters. They’re speculative investment.

Investors pay for art off a gallery wall in the hope that it will increase in value. That somebody out there will pay more. Eventually. It’s a standard investment risk.

So it’s irrelevant trope that photographers and critics roll out with the criticisms about “mechanical creation” or “artistic merit” – totally meaningless drivel. What does matter is that the free market has spoken:

This piece of work fetched the sum of $6.5 million dollars, the highest price for a photograph to date; the story ends there.

In two or five or ten years time we’ll be proven either right, or wrong, based on the free market demand for somebody eventually paying a higher price.

And I’ll quietly point out that when you see somebody get a high price for their photographic work it’s bad form to be a nasty armchair critic. Instead, maybe you should admire their business tenacity, their marketing success and perseverance in the face of doubters, or the fact they pulled it off by sheer good fortune.

There was a time you could buy a Cezanne for almost nothing… and Cezanne was an old man when that time came around… then the market decided otherwise. The actual talent of Cezanne the day before that change and his talent the day afterward were negligible. The paintings existed prior to the market’s decision that Cezanne was a master worthy of high prices.

Stop thinking this art sale is about your idea of value. Or that your opinion means more than a passing fart in a Waterloo skirmish. You are most probably not a speculative investor in the art market and have no idea about art photography or value. Just keep making photographs.

Update: 15/12/2014
In reality, there is no proof this sale ever occurred, except for Lik’s story. This was a private unsubstantiated sale. It may just be a marketing stunt and I have to confess to wondering how this could claim any record without the required proof. There are a number of people out there calling this one as a total non-event, or are simply taking the piss because it’s bullshit.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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