The Most Expensive Photographs Ever Sold

Ever wondered just how much your best photograph could be worth if it was put up for auction?

Here are the photos that have won the five highest bids when put on the block.

Of course, we’re not saying that one of your photographs could be worth this much… but then again, who knows?

1. Andreas Gursky’s “99 Cent II Diptych”

Photo Courtesy Sotheby’s

The first photograph to sell for more than $3 million, Andreas Gurky’s 99 cent II, Diptych reached $3,340,456 at a Sotheby’s auction in London, February 2007. This was the third time the photograph had sold for more than $2 million. Another print of the same image was sold for $2.25 million in May, 2006, and yet another print had reached $2.48 million just six months later.

Interestingly, the record-breaking photograph was sold not at a photography auction, but at a sale of contemporary art. That might suggest that how an artwork is sold plays an important role in defining how much it can sell for.

2. Edward Steichen’s “The Pond-Moonlight”

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Just missing the $3 million mark, and for a while the world’s highest-selling photograph, Edward Steichen’s “The Pond – Moonlight” was sold for $2,928,000 at Sotheby’s in New York in February, 2006.

The picture shows moonlight between trees and reflecting on a pond, and appears to be in color. However, color photography did not begin until 1907, three years after the photograph was taken.

Steichen used layers of light-sensitive gum to create an impression of color. Only three prints exist, with the other two in museum collections.

One way to create an expensive photo then could be to use a unique process, keep it rare… and wait a hundred years.

3. Richard Prince’s “Anonymous (Cowboy)”

Courtesy of Christie’s

Richard Prince’s photograph of a cowboy was perhaps an odd choice as the first photograph to reach a million dollars at auction. It sold for $1,248,000 at Christie’s in New York in November 2005.

The photograph, which was taken in 1989, wasn’t original but a shot of part of a Marlboro ad. Prince had started shooting images of magazine ads while collating press clips for Time Life in the 1970s.

The only other image, other than the proof in the possession of the artist, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Subject matter and rarity count it seems.

4. Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s “Athènes, T[emple] de J[upiter] olympien pris de l’est”

Courtesy of Christie’s

It’s a little easier to understand the appeal — and the price — of French photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s image of the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter in Athens, which was sold at Christie’s in London for $922,488 in 2003.

Shot in 1842, the daguerreotype is believed to be the oldest image of the temple still existing.

It makes you wonder what the first photograph of the iPhone might be worth in 150 years…

5. Gustave Le Gray’s “The Great Wave, Sete”

Sometimes a combination of the rarity an old image brings and a striking subject matter can be enough to create a high price. For Gustave Le Gray, it created a picture that sold for $838,000 at Sotheby’s in London in 1999.

Le Gray’s image marked the first time that a photographer had managed to expose landscape and sky correctly in the same image. He did this by creating one negative for the sky and one for the sea, and printing them together on the same sheet of paper. In effect, he created a collage.

It’s an easy technique for a modern photographer to emulate but try doing it without a digital camera, Photoshop… and from a glass negative.

Before you start sorting through your archive to pull out better images than these, bear in mind that the value of a photograph at auction depends on all sorts of factors that go beyond the quality of the image. These might include the state of the stock market, the fame of the artist, the number of prints, when the print was made and the restrictions imposed on the negative.

Creating a million dollar photo often requires a lot more than getting the shot right.

See what’s now on the block at Sotheby’s photography auctions here, and Christie’s here, and tell us what you think of the price of photographic art.

[tags] expensive photos, expensive photographs [/tags]

26 comments for this post.

  1. Catherine dée Auvil Said:

    I love this subject. I wish that you would make it a recurring topic. It's a real boost when I hear about a photograph that sold for lots of money. Gives me hope.

    I started the page at Wikipedia on this subject (I think you used it in your research. You are welcome:) It was really difficult to find the information. There's no clearing house for news about photography auctions. That I could find. Maybe it could be here and people could send you tips? How bout a bi-annual most expensive photo round-up here at photopreneur?

    I love your blog. It is well written and very inspiring.

  2. Best Desi Said:

    Although i don't know much about photography i am really fascinated with good photos, in these photos the best i found was the “The Pond-Moonlight” i dint understand why the first one was so expensive and at the #1 spot 🙂

    Very nice Blog..i will surely be coming back again.

    Take Care
    Kenny G

  3. ALiK Said:

    when will the first photo be sold with more than $30.000.000 ? State of THE ART Photography !

  4. ZachW Said:

    What? I can't believe that pic of the supermarket sold for 3mil!

  5. Rique Said:

    LOL. This has got to be a joke. No one in their right mind would spend that much money on a photograph unless it was for a charity auction.

  6. mark ivey Said:

    I like the cowboy (but then again, I'm from Texas). At $1.2 million it seems like a cheap bargain compared to #1 (which I don't even get)

  7. Kelly Said:

    Well, the #1 is actually a neat shot if you can see it full size, as it is absolutely *packed* with detail. Not three million worth by me, but still, it's an interesting shot in terms of composition and sheer content.

    The cigarette one, OTOH, I dunno. The composition's fine and all, nothing wrong with it, but it really looks like something you'd see hanging in the Rodeo Lounge of the Tulsa Holiday Inn. Buy it at one of those art-by-the-pound places. Seven digits? You got me.

    Anyway, I gotta get a piece of this action. I want a copy of #2. Bad.

  8. Singe Said:

    No mention of the occasional paparazzi here and there who gets a $mil for a comprimising photo of a famous celebrity?

  9. JBreeze Said:

    The first picture is probably so sought after because it uses a very well thought out visual metaphor for the increase in consumerism in most first world culture. Bear in mind it sould at an CONTEMPORARY ART auction. Really think deeply about the proccess of product creation, distribution, and placement.

  10. IdeaLog Said:

    I don't get the reason why the prices are so huge. You can get a camera and take nicer shots.

  11. muymalgal Said:

    yes, people do spend that kind of money, and no, not for charity.
    investing in fine art and photographs is better than investing in the stockmarket.
    and the photo of the 99ct store is brilliant.

  12. BillyWarhol Said:

    I was just reading about Richard Prince in Vanity Fair Mag* First time I've seen his Marlboro Ad Photo - Not really what I thought it would be - I think they had way Stronger Icongraphic Images than that! Then again I haven't been Paid $1.2 Mill for any o mine!! ;))

    Cheers Everybody + Happy Shooting in 2008! Billy ;))


  13. SEAN Said:

    Guys talk about expensive photographs.Jonathan M.Singer has really exspenive images.He is being put in the Smithsonian in May. He just sold a photo book for almot 3 million dollars.

  14. tiger Said:

    i was surprised to see Andreas Gursky’s “99 Cent II Diptych” was even on this list because i've loved that diptych - or more specifically, the second frame of the two - since i first saw it somewhere online a few months back, and it's almost unheard of that any photo i consider to be good wins anything in any contest, large or small. it's almost always the painfully boring photographs that fetch ribbons and acclaim, or even a place on a gallery wall (achievement in the art world so often being much more about who you know than about whether you have any talent). i'm heartened to see a photo that wows me finally getting some high-end recognition.

    those who don't see its artistic merit may just need to see it bigger or something. when i first saw it, here:

    i said "wow" out loud.

  15. web design company Said:

    The first photograph, the one of the supermarket, was on the front page od Digg about a year ago.

  16. paul blute Said:

    Gurskys 99c's is a terrific piece of photography I cant understand how some of the photographers on here can not appreciate it, it is full of lines,patterns and color that are all very arresting to the eye, it is amazing how the multitude items form a sea of colorful patterns, you do not have to be rich to own it either I have been considering getting a print for my lounge since last year as it is available in poster/print format and would make a great adornment for any contemporary wall. merry christmas to all......paul

  17. paul blute Said:

    ps....I forgot to mention how it always reminds me of one of those dna tests when viewed from a distance

  18. Cool Said:

    Wow, just how much would the insurance be on these?

  19. violet Said:

    the gursky print is amazing. it's one of my favourites of his ... though that three of those prints have sold for around $3mil each does make me scratch my head a bit.

  20. Owen Said:

    Gurskys photo is very nice,but the subject matter the supermarket will sit there for as long as you want.You have all the time to ponder look and wonder how to set it up and take it,3 million $$ very very silly
    The cowboy photo if it was an original photo image i would call totally outstanding,it involves man,nature and quick perfect timimg in the end though i love it very cool photo.

  21. Derek Campbell Said:

    Art should never be valued with $

  22. easels Said:

    The Pond-Moonlight by Edward Steichen has become the most expensive photograph ever, as it was just recentely sold for more than $2,900,000 during a Sotheby’s sale which began in New York on February 14, 2006. The expensive photograph was taken on Long Island in 1904.

  23. shannon Said:

    For those not understanding Gursky's work and how it fetched such a high price please note that each print is 81.5 in x 120.9 in, truly huge. Also it is ridiculously detailed, the colours are beautifully printed (more difficult than it might seem to non-photographers) and it captures interesting and unique subject matter. The others are bores in comparison.

  24. Rob Said:

    I love that photo "Pond-Moonlight". It would be a good photo taken with modern day equipment. I guess it goes to show the equipment you use can only go so far to make you a good photographer.

  25. JOHN Said:

    Hi, I wonder if I could get an estimate of the value of a photograph I have of 16 of the Mercury, Gemini, and Appolo astronauts from circa 1964.

    They are at a training facility at Panama City and are standing informally in a line- in the photo are Astronauts McDivitt,Cooper, Schirra,Shepard,See, Grissom, Borman,Carpenter, Stafford, White, Glenn, Lovell, Conrad, Slayton Armstrong, Young I would like to know approximatly what ifwould be worth- it is not autographed- Thank you

  26. Free Photos Said:

    Never imagined someone can make millions from a single photo; In world of microstock photos being sold for pennies!

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