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Large Format Camera By Johnn Briggs For Unsplash
CREDIT: Johnn Briggs for Unsplash

The World’s Most Expensive Photograph

Christie's New York recently sold the world's most expensive photograph

On 9th November, Christie’s auction house hosted a sale of artworks from the private collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The auction instantly became legendary for the sheer volume of records broken in the sale; $1.5 billion in sales, the most number of lots to sell for over $100 million, and numerous artist records, all watched by over 4 million steamers worldwide. One particular record that was broken at the sale, and has largely gone unnoticed in mainstream media, is the most expensive photograph ever to sell at auction

Stretching back in time to November 2011, Christie’s New York sold a print by fine art photographer Andreas Gursky for $4,338,500. It became the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction and retained that title for eleven years, until this month when the record was smashed by the sale of Edward Steichen’s The Flatiron; a 1905 platinum print showing Manhattan’s famous Flatiron building in 1904. The print was estimated to sell for $2 million-$3 million but exceeded all expectations by selling for $11,840,000 and becoming the world’s most expensive photograph to sell at auction; breaking the previous record by more than $7.5 million.

The photograph is a 48.3cm x 37.5cm platinum print covered in gum-bichromate; a method Steichen used to add colour to his pictorial images, giving the lowly-lit moody photo a twilight hue. An approach that the Metropolitan Museum of Art described as ‘the quintessential chromatic study of twilight’, and shows ‘the conscious effort of photographers [such as Steichen and co-exhibitor Alfred Stieglitz,] to assert the artistic potential of their medium’. This artistic significance, coupled with the age of the print, and the provenance (originally owned by Steichen’s grandnephew, then a private collector who later sold it on to Allen), all contribute to the financial value of the print.

The sale comes sixteen years after Steichen’s The Pond - Moonlight became the world’s most expensive photograph when it sold at auction for $2,928,000. The lot was the first photograph to sell for over $2 million, and, at the time, was only one of four to have sold for over a million dollars. It was also the only photograph by the artist to make it into the top 40 ‘most expensive photographs sold at auction’. Since the 2016 record, there have been twelve photographs to claim the title of ‘most expensive photograph’ including Steichen’s own The Flatiron.

With a top ten made up of contemporary artists, the significance of Steichen’s top spot, coupled with the thoroughly analogue methods of execution, will not be lost on auction experts and future buyers. Read more about Christie's record-breaking auction at their website here.

For more analogue photography news, tips and information, visit the RPS’ Analogue microsite, the Analogue Group’s Facebook page or Instagram page.