Next week, Christie’s and Sotheby’s host their first photography sales of 2010 in New York. Christie’s has led in U.S. photography auctions for the past three years, outselling Sotheby’s $9,038,476 to $5,701,069 in 2009. This April, Christie’s is likely to continue its domination, offering 50% more lots than Sotheby’s as well as an entire session devoted to a private collection of photos by the late, great Irving Penn.
[private_subscriber][private_bundle]Last year, both houses fell victim to a severe downturn in the photography market. Between 2008 and 2009, the average price for a photo fell by 50% to $13,397. When only the middle 95% of the market is considered—i.e., when outliers are excluded—the drop was less steep at 29%. In either case, however, the average price for a photo fell short of the average mid-estimate, suggesting that the photos that sold in 2009 underperformed expectations.
In the end, the 2009 New York photography auctions grossed about 50% less than in 2005 and about 70% less than in 2008. These significant decreases in total sales were at least partially related to a reduction in the number of lots offered. Christie’s and Sotheby’s both laid on the brakes last year, trimming their lot volume by 38% and 24%, respectively. With more than 600 lots on the block next week, the houses are offering 25% fewer photos than they featured in April 2008 but twice as many works as they offered last spring—evidence that they are ready to give the photography market a little jolt.
During the boom, the photography market grew most in two areas: lot volume and total sales. Between 2005 and 2007, the former increased by 42% and the latter by 62%. By contrast, actual prices did not increase in value as sharply (Fig. 1). The steepest climb in photography’s average prices was 24% (in 2006)—nothing to sniff at but still much less than contemporary art’s maximum growth rate of 100% (in 2007). On the bright side, photography’s less explosive prices have made it 61% less volatile than contemporary art since 2005. Photography’s top prices, however, have slipped dramatically. In 2005, the top 10% of photos sold brought $14,402,579, 64% of the category’s total value, whereas last year’s top 10% contributed $3,866,583—only 33% of the total value (Fig. 2). Additionally, the high price for a lot sold in a photography auction dropped to a five year low of $292,083. So while average prices returned to their 2005 levels in 2009, the category’s highest prices fetched less than a quarter of what they did in 2005.