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May 8, 2012

Price fighters: Why do paintings cost so much more than photos?

Take the world’s most expensive painting sold at auction and put it up against the world’s most expensive photograph. And what have you got? Well, you’ve got a one hundred and fifteen million dollar price gap, that’s what.

In November 2011 Andreas Gursky’s ‘Rhine II’ became the worlds most expensive photograph, selling at Christie’s for $4.3million. On May 2nd 2012, Edvard Munch’s pastel ‘The Scream’ sold at Sotherby’s for a staggering $120 million.  So what is it that makes paintings so much more valuable?

The BBC Arts Correspondent, Will Gompertz, lists five key reasons which effect auction house sale prices: rarity, reputation of the artist, confidence of the market, condition of the work and competition for the piece. Five factors which are all applicable to both paintings and photographs.

Supply and demand

One obvious defence of a painting’s higher price would be its uniqueness. But surprisingly, in this case, this is not true. In addition to the one sold recently, there are three other ‘Screams’, all in Norwegian Museums. The rarity issue here then lies with the fact that this is the last version in private hands, which roughly translates to the last one ever to come up for sale.

Similarly, there are six versions of ‘Rhine II’. As every economist knows, one way to keep prices high is to limit supply. So whilst a photograph could be printed many thousands of times, a smaller edition will necessarily keep the price up. As with ‘The Scream’, since the others are in collections unlikely to be sold, the one at auction effectively becomes rarer.

History matters

Compared to paintings, art photography is but a young whippersnapper. And no matter how hard gallerists and auctioneers try, if there’s one thing money can never buy, it’s history.

By the simple fact of having been around for so long, painting has more tradition, more cultural reference points and more impact on art history than photography. Through reproduction on everything from balloons to T-shirts to mugs, The Scream is immediately recognisable. The ‘Rhine II’ could hardly claim the same.

Of course, photography does reach the dizzying heights of cultural ubiquity. Alberta Korda’s imfamous shot of Che Guevara would be but one easy example. But this is more about it being an image and not an object. If this image had of been made for a gallery and not a magazine, and if only 6 prints had of been made, then perhaps it too would be worth $100million. However, if that was the case, would the same number of people have seen it and therefore transformed it into such a huge cultural icon? I sincerely doubt it.

The Scream, however, is both instantly recognisable as an image and culturally important as an object. For sale rooms, that’s a winning combination.

Condition counts

Photographs are trying their best to compete with paintings: size, limited editions, superstar artist-photographers, an ever growing history and expanding art world acceptance are all contributing to their prices. But, of course, as photographs get older, so do paintings. It’s one of those situations: you’ll never be as old as your older brother.

Additionally, unlike painting, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the long term stability of some photographic prints (Polaroids, for example are notorious for disappearing) and no one wants to be left holding a million dollar blank piece of paper.

Competition time

Despite the tough economic climate, the arrival of both Russian and Chinese buyers to Western auction houses has dramatically buoyed the market. Added to which, with other investments looking increasingly shaky, high end art has been regarded by some as a ‘safe’ place to put your money.

So long as you have a few million to spare in the first place, of course.