Photograph Sold for $6.5m Tops List of Most Expensive Ever Taken
A picture might be worth a thousand words, but in some cases, it can also be worth millions to the right buyer! Do you think you could you identify the world’s most valuable photos ever taken and sold?
We've pulled together a list featuring the most expensive photographs ever captured, with some works dating as far back as 1904!
Peter Lik’s ‘Phantom’ tops the list after being sold for $6.5m to a private collector, followed by ‘Rhein II’ taken by Andreas Gursky, which sold for more than $4.3m at auction in 2011.
The most valuable photographs ever taken are:
Peter Lik ‘Phantom’ (2014) - $6.5 million in 2014
Well known for his black and white photography, Australian photographer Peter Lik, sold ‘Phantom’ to a private and anonymous buyer shortly after it was taken for $6.5 million. The famous image is a black and white rendering of Lik’s photo ‘Ghost’ taken in Arizona’s Antelope Canyon. Lik has been quoted as saying that the he sees the purpose of his photos to be ‘to imprint force of nature’.
A truly striking piece.
Andreas Gursky ‘Rhein II’ (1999) - $4.3 million in 2011
German photographer Andreas Gursky made his career shooting large-format photos of landscapes and architecture. Rhein II is one of a series of six photographs he took of the river in 1999 and many people have queried if it was truly worth its 2011 price tag.
The photo itself is nearly 12ft wide, and signed by Gursky, but he has faced criticism as it has been heavily edited in post-production – the original photo had buildings and people in it that have been removed. Nevertheless, it’s remained safe at the number two spot since 2011.
Richard Prince ‘Spiritual America’ (1981) - $3.9 million in 2014
A controversial piece, which is why we’ve not included it here, ‘Spiritual America’ features the actress Brooke Shields naked as a child. Sold by Christie’s New York in May 2014, you can view the photo on their website should you wish.
In 2009, the image again courted controversy after it was removed from an exhibition at the Tate Modern following a warning from police.
Cindy Sherman ‘Untitled #96’ (1981) - $3.8 million in 2011
A chromogenic colour print, Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled #96’ is one of 12 images from her Centerfold series commissioned by ArtForum magazine. Sherman, who is well-known for her self-portrait work, deliberately doesn’t name her work to allow the viewers to come to their own conclusions as to what they portray.
Gilbert & George ‘To Her Majesty’ (1973) - $3.7 million in 2008
The often-provocative artist duo of Gilbert & George created pieces in various mediums that commented on world events. This piece is their most commercially successful after it sold at auction for $3.7 million.
Jeff Wall ‘Dead Troops Talk’ (1992) - $.3.6 million in 2012
This famous image is not one for a weak stomach. Merging scenes from war and horror films, this photograph is an elaborately staged scene depicting re-animated Red Army soldiers who have been killed during an ambush in Afghanistan in 1986. The bloodied troops are photographed engaging with one another, in what Wall describes as ‘dialogue of the dead’.
Andreas Gursky ’99 Cent II Diptychon’ (2001) – $3.3 million in 2007
How ironic that a photograph of cheap products could be sold for millions of dollars! Well-known for his large format architecture and landscape colour photographs, ’99 Cent II Diptychon’ is the first of Gursky’s works to feature on our list. This two-part photograph shows an interior of a supermarket with endless aisles of goods, resulting in a colourful work of art.
Andreas Gursky ‘Chicago Board of Trade III’ (1999-2000) – $3.29 million in 2013
Gursky’s second entry, as its title suggests, captures the trading floor of the Board of Trade in Chicago in 1999. Brokers have been photographed gesturing wildly, hunched over phones and gathered around banks of monitors, with a blurred quality that enhances the obvious flurry of activity.
Richard Prince ‘Untitled (Cowboy)’ (2000) - $3 million in 2014
Instantly recognisable in leather chaps, boots, denim and a famous Stetson hat, Richard Prince’s cowboy series are actually re-photographed images of Marlboro cigarette adverts, cropped to remove text. The photograph depicts an unknown cowboy in action, swinging his lasso against a background of blue sky and fluffy white clouds.
Cindy Sherman ‘Untitled Film Still #48’ (1979) - $2.96 million in 2015
Captured as part of a series of sixty-nine black and white photographs, Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Still #48’ shows the artist herself posing as a lonely young woman on the side of a darkening rural road. While the series of pictures are not considered ‘self-portraits’, each image features Sherman as a generic female film character, using vintage clothing, various wigs and makeup to resemble scenes inspired by 1950s and 60s Hollywood movies.
Andreas Gursky is the list’s wealthiest photographer, with his work featuring three times in the top 10, followed by Cindy Sherman, with two photographs in the list.
Tips for creating and selling valuable work
- Do choose your subjects and medium carefully
- Don’t worry if you can’t afford the latest photography tech - many of the most valuable photos were shot pre-2000
- Don’t underestimate or overestimate the power of the edit - post-production can be your friend or your enemy; use it wisely
- Choose a name for your pieces carefully - a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but would your image?
- Don’t dismiss shooting stock photography, especially images that promote diversity and challenge stereotypes. It might not be a big earner, but it’s a steady one
- Do remember that it’s ultimately buyers that set the price and determine the value of artistic work, rarely the creators. Create what you love; not what you think will sell
Tony Xu, founder of Perfocal, says:
“Every photographer wants to make money from their passion, and every photographer has the ability to create something extraordinary with their camera. At Perfocal, we understand what it takes to truly capture a moment, and in the case of family, birth, wedding, and graduation photography it’s the sentimental value that’s important. But that’s not to say there isn’t money to be made if you know where to look.
“We hope this list inspires the next generation of photographers to see the world a different way and can’t wait to see some more modern work appear in the top 10. After all, as our list shows, a photo can be worth so much more than a thousand words!"