Top 10 most expensive photographs ever sold
Top 10 most expensive photographs ever sold

While photos from all different disciplines of photography have sold successfully, if we are talking about the most expensive photo ever sold, we are going to be talking about “fine art” photography.

Fine art photography can be a strange and volatile market that can change very rapidly. While most photos sell for what people would consider reasonable amounts, some inflate to numbers most photographers can only ever see in their dreams. These are 10 most expensive photographs ever sold.

The list of top 10 most expensive photographs ever sold in the world

10. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still: 48 $2,965,000

9. Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy): $3,077,000

8. Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade II: $3,298,755

7. Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon: $3,346,456

6. Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk: $3,666,500

5. Gilbert & George, To Her Majesty: $3,765,276

4. Cindy Sherman, Untitled 96: 96 $3,890,500

3. Richard Prince, Spiritual America: $3,973,000

2. Andreas Gursky, Rhein II: $4,338,500

1. Peter Lik, Phantom – The Most Expensive Photography Ever Sold

What are the most expensive photographs in the world?

10. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still

Photo: Tate
Photo: Tate

Untitled Film Stills is a series of sixty-nine black-and-white photographs made between 1977 and 1980. In them Sherman appears as fictitious characters in scenarios resembling moments in a film. She used vintage clothing, wigs and makeup to create a range of female personae which she then photographed in apparently solitary, unguarded moments of reflection, undress, or in conversation with somebody off-set and outside of the frame. The ‘stills’ are set in a variety of interior locations as well as outside in urban and rural landscapes. They were begun shortly after Sherman moved to New York city with the artist Robert Longo (born 1953).

Initially Sherman photographed the Film Stills in the loft apartment where she and Longo lived. She took many of the pictures herself using an extended shutter release; others, particularly those set in outdoor locations, required a second person to take the photograph, such as her boyfriend, friends or family. Sherman’s father took #48, in which she appears as a vulnerable young woman waiting with a suitcase at the side of a darkening country road.

Like real movie stills Sherman’s images evoke events in possible narratives which the viewer may invent or interpret in different ways, suggesting an original which never in fact existed. Like all of Sherman’s photographic series, they provide a range of fictional portraits, usually of women, in which the artist operates as actress, director, wardrobe assistant, set designer and cameraman.

9. Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy)

Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the mid-1970s Prince was an aspiring painter who earned a living by clipping articles from magazines for staff writers at Time-Life Inc. What remained at the end of the day were the advertisements, featuring gleaming luxury goods and impossibly perfect models; both fascinated and repulsed by these ubiquitous images, the artist began rephotographing them, using a repertoire of strategies (such as blurring, cropping, and enlarging) to intensify their original artifice. In so doing, Prince undermined the seeming naturalness and inevitability of the images, revealing them as hallucinatory fictions of society's desires.

"Untitled (Cowboy)" is a high point of the artist's ongoing deconstruction of an American archetype as old as the first trailblazers and as timely as then-outgoing president Ronald Reagan. Prince's picture is a copy (the photograph) of a copy (the advertisement) of a myth (the cowboy). Perpetually disappearing into the sunset, this lone ranger is also a convincing stand-in for the artist himself, endlessly chasing the meaning behind surfaces. Created in the fade-out of a decade devoted to materialism and illusion, "Untitled (Cowboy)" is, in the largest sense, a meditation on an entire culture's continuing attraction to spectacle over lived experience.

8. Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade II

Photo: Tate
Photo: Tate

Gursky’s process often involves taking several pictures of a subject and scanning the resultant images into a computer where he can merge and manipulate them. His aim in using digital technology is not to create fictions but rather to heighten the image of something that exists in the world. He has said, ‘Since 1992 I have consciously made use of the possibilities offered by electronic picture processing, so as to emphasise formal elements that will enhance the picture, or, for example, to apply a picture concept that in real terms of perspective would be impossible to realise’ (quoted in ‘... I generally let things develop slowly’, Andreas Gursky: Fotografien 1994-1998, p.viii).

In this case the flat, all-over quality of the picture and lack of single perspective make the architecture of the room hard to read. The traders, banks of monitors and scraps of paper littering the floor become part of an overall patterning reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist painting. Rather than being a straight depiction of the trading floor as a place, Gursky’s image seems to depict the brash, exuberant and unfathomable activity of the stock market as a global phenomenon. Indeed, this is one of a series of photographs Gursky has taken of international stock and commodity exchanges, including the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Singapore Simex and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He also made a previous image of the Chicago Board of Trade in 1997. In the earlier image, taken from a lower vantage point, one of the far walls of the trading room is visible, giving a sense that the activity of the trading floor is contained. In this version, made two years later, the overcrowded trading floor occupies the whole image. The colours have been digitally enhanced, adding to an intense decorative effect that mimics mosaic or stained glass.

7. Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon

Photo: Tate
Photo: Tate

The artwork 99 Cent II Diptychon from 2001 is a two-part colour photograph made by Andreas Gursky originally probably in 1999, as the work is sometimes called "99 cent.1999".

The work depicts an interior of a supermarket with numerous aisles depicting goods resulting in a colourful work. The work is digitally altered to reduce perspective. The photograph is a chromogenic color print or c-print. It is a two-part work, also called a diptych. There were 6 sets made and mounted on acrylic glass. The photographs have a size of 2.07 by 3.37 metres (6.8 ft × 11.1 ft).

The work became famous as being the most expensive photograph in the world when it was auctioned at Sotheby's on February 7, 2007, for a price of US$3.34 million. Another auction in New York in May 2006 fetched $2.25 million for a second print, and a third print sold for $2.48 million in November 2006 at a New York gallery. These would be the fourth and sixth-most costly photographs sold, as of 2011. On May 12, 2011, Cindy Sherman's Untitled #96 from 1981 was sold for $3.89 million.

6. Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk

Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) by Jeff Wall
Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) by Jeff Wall

One of the most influential photographers to emerge in the last thirty years, Jeff Wall creates elaborately staged transparencies that are displayed in light boxes. Wall’s photographs conjure moments of strange resonance, mixing art historical references with subtle conceptual strategies and juxtapositions to offer a critique of modern living. In Dead Troops Talk, Wall captures an intricate fictional scene that resembles at once a painting of war and a still from a zombie horror film. Staged in several parts, the photograph depicts a battlefield with soldiers coming back to life. The men show a range of emotional responses to their newfound transcendence, from humor to confusion. In a strange paradox, the troops appear more concerned with interpersonal relationships than with the historical meaning of their own actions.

Jeff Wall is one of the most important photographers to emerge in the last forty years and arguably one of the most successful artists living and working in Canada. Beginning his career in a small but devoted community of conceptual artists in Vancouver, Wall is credited with expanding the territory and scope of contemporary photography. Displayed in light boxes, Wall’s photographs conjure moments of strange resonance, combining various conceptual strategies, ranging from modernist painting to cinema to literature. Perhaps Wall’s most significant contribution is his subtle use of the history of painting to reflect upon and augment the polyvalent theoretical climate of the art world. Critiques of the gaze, of the nature of representation, and of the market economy are present in his work; the many subtextual layers invite the viewer to go deeper.

5. Gilbert & George, To Her Majesty

Photo: Christie's
Photo: Christie's

By offering themselves as objects for contemplation in works like To Her Majesty, Gilbert & George sought to elevate ordinary experience and to unravel the ideologies and pretensions of art history. In doing so, they have pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable ever since their time studying at St. Martin's in the late sixties, where they rejected the overwhelming focus on formalism and materiality in art at that time.

In the process, Gilbert & George have created an honest 'warts and all' portrait of modern reality that contends with all its horrifying ugliness and fascinating beauty. Like their previous use of old vaudeville songs and pastoral imagery, the artists' portrayal of a age-old culture of heavy drinking both propagates an image of Britain and at the same time attacks its conventions, reflecting the accepted norms of British society as bizarre extremes. This outsider's appreciation of the general societal urge for conformity is further inverted by their adopted façade of immaculately tailored three-button suits and expressionless faces, which are remarkable for their unnervingly bland ordinariness. In viewing themselves as a living breathing sculpture that contains emotion and feels pain, Gilbert & George embody idea that an artist's sacrifice and personal investment is a necessary condition of art, yet they have found self-deprecating humour to be the perfect foil for confrontation, enabling them to deflect the discomfort of public scrutiny.

4. Cindy Sherman, Untitled 96

Photo: Cindy Sherman
Photo: Cindy Sherman

Untitled #96 is a color photograph made by American visual artist Cindy Sherman in 1981. It is known as part of her Centerfold series of 12 pictures. In 11 May 2011, a print was auctioned for US$3.89 million, the highest price paid for a photographic print at that time, though the price has since been surpassed. Another print was sold by $2,882,500 at Christie's New York, at 8 May 2012.

The photograph depicts the artist portraying a young teenager girl with short blonde hair, lying in linoleum floor, wearing an orange sweater and a short skirt, as she clutches the scrap of a newspaper. Cindy Sherman explained about the composition: "I was thinking of a young girl who may have been cleaning the kitchen for her mother and who ripped something out of the newspaper, something asking 'Are you lonely?' or 'Do you want to be friends?' or 'Do you want to go on a vacation?' She's cleaning the floor, she rips this out and she's thinking about it".

There are prints of the photograph at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, in Rotterdam.

3. Richard Prince, Spiritual America

Photo: Christie's
Photo: Christie's

Prince's most infamous appropriation presents us with a highly disturbing image and questions of authorship, ownership, and consent. Originally taken by a commercial photographer, Gary Gross, in 1976, this photograph of a young Brooke Shields is unsettlingly near to child pornography. Shields, age 10, stands at the center of the frame, her arms outstretched to expose her nude figure. Her gaze meets that of the viewer with a look that is disconcertingly alluring. Light from the window bounces off her glistening skin and the white smoke that rises up to her knees. This mature expression and seductive stance are in direct conflict with her undeveloped body and obvious youth. It is doubtlessly a provocative and highly sexualized image of a prepubescent girl.

While the image is visually troubling, the story of its origin is also unsavory. The original photograph had been taken with the consent of Shields's mother, who sold Gross the unlimited publication rights for $450. At the time, in 1976, Shields was relatively unknown. In 1983, the year of Prince's rephotograph, Shields and her mother had sued Gross in an attempt to suppress the image, but were unsuccessful. In the press surrounding this court battle, the photograph was never reproduced by the mainstream media, but Prince found it in an adult publication (Little Women), rephotographed it, and presented it in a gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Visitors to the show were only admitted by invitation, transforming the exhibition into an elite event; yet, as this was the only image on display, viewers had to acknowledge that they had come specifically to see this controversial work, making them complicit in the exploitation of the young Shields. Prince therefore exposed not only the salacious work, the dubious conditions of its origin and the consent of the subject, but also the public's fascination with scandal. The title of Prince's rephotograph and of the exhibition, Spiritual America, was taken from a pre-existing source, an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of a gelded horse, often interpreted as a critique of American prudishness or repression.

2. Andreas Gursky, Rhein II

Photo: Andrea Gursky
Photo: Andrea Gursky

The Rhine II represents a tendency in Gursky’s work towards abstraction. Throughout his career he has periodically made images whose formal and conceptual simplicity place them closer to the tradition of abstract art. Untitled I, 1993 is a close-up of an industrial carpet that recalls a grey monochrome painting. The grid-like ceiling depicted in Brasília, General Assembly I, 1994 has affinities with minimal objects. The Rhine II shares with these earlier photographs an emphasis on textures; the distinctions between the shimmering gloss of the river, the smudged softness of the clouds, the lush carpet of the verges and the hard matte path lend the photograph sensual contrast.

The photograph is a reworking of an earlier image, The Rhine, 1996. The earlier work has a slightly higher and flatter viewpoint and a more uniformly grey sky. As Peter Galassi, Chief Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, has pointed out, both images have been ‘festooned by critic’s invocations of Barnett Newman’ (Peter Galassi, ‘Gursky’s World’, Andreas Gursky, p.41). Newman (1905-70) favoured vertical compositions with straight lines or zips in a contrasting colour interrupting the monochrome surface of his canvases. Gursky’s images read like horizontal versions of Newman paintings.

1. Peter Lik, Phantom

Photo: Peter Lik
Photo: Peter Lik

Out of the seven reported highest grossing photographs ever sold as of 2019, five of them were sold at auction by Christie's, one by Sotheby's and the most expensive one....anonymously? In December 2014, Peter Lik's "Phantom", a monochrome version of a previously released print titled "Ghost" was thrust into the spotlight by claiming to be the most expensive photograph of all time. This anonymous sale was for a reported 6.5 Million dollars, shattering the previous record held by Andreas Gursky's Rhein II after it sold for $4,338,500 via the auction house Christie's in November 2011.

This black and white photograph of upper Antelope Canyon in Arizona shows a shaft of light and falling sand inside the underground slot canyon. An iconic place with many photographers and one I have photographed myself many times. While some controversy swirls around the sale of this photograph and its anonymous nature, it has still been widely recognized as the worlds most expensive photograph even though disputed by many.

Peter Lik has a number of famous prints including several pieces captured of the Scripps Pier in La Jolla, California including "Endless Summer", "Ocean Window" and "A Sky Full of Stars". Other popular pieces include "Moonlit Dreams", "Tree Of Life", "A Morning In France" and several from Antelope Canyon in Arizona. Some of the top prints from Antelope Canyon include "Eternal Beauty", "Desire" and of course "Ghost", the color version that "Phantom" was created from.

What makes Lik's piece so valuable? There doesn't seem to be consensus or clear answer, other than the buyer simply fell in love with the piece and apparently thought it was worth what he paid for it. Art moves people in strange, strong ways, and that might be the closest thing to reasoning we get. But there are critics who question this. “These prices are very high and certainly, in terms of other successful photographic artists, seem somewhat bizarre,” art consultant David Hulme told the Sydney Morning Herald. The Guardian's Jonathan Jones expressed an even harsher point of view in his December 10, 2014 piece. "Peter Lik's hollow, cliched and tasteless black and white shot of an Arizona canyon isn't art, and proves that photography never will be."

Controversy around "Phantom"

In December 2014, Peter Lik claimed to have sold an image titled “Phantom” for a whopping $6.5 million, to an anonymous bidder. It would make it the highest price paid for a photograph. Ever.

This claim met with scepticism left and right. The anonymous bidder has not come forward, nor been identified. Since then, articles have been pointing out problems with his strategies, sales and general photographic images.

Although the sale of “Phantom” was the last time where his credibility came into question, it wasn’t the first.

The reason why the sales of “One”, “Illusion” or “Phantom” are not part of the top 20 most expensive photographs ever sold, is because they are suspicious.

There is no proof that these sales ever took place. A photographer saying he sold an image isn’t proof. Anyone could turn around and say that they sold an image for $6+ million. What makes it real?

With Peter Lik’s “The Phantom”, there is nothing unusual about it. He said himself that he was lining up the shot when the Indian guide threw some dust in the air. This is what gave him the ghost-like impression.

This was to be a simple landscape shot. The artistic vision behind the image was not his. Looking at the list of most expensive photographs, there is not one photograph of a simple landscape image.

Even the most viewed photograph of all time (Charles O’Rear – Bliss) didn’t make it on the list. Even though the photographer stated he received an extraordinary financial amount.

On top of this, Peter Lik’s “Phantom” isn’t even the first rendition of this image. ‘Phantom’ is, in fact, a black and white version of Peter Lik’s “Ghost”. The sale of ”Ghost” reached $15,860. That is over 409 times cheaper than the black and white version. It doesn’t add up. Who is paying this much for a desaturated copy?

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