Even Peter Lik Says His Art Is Not Worth the Money

Even Peter Lik Says His Art Is Not Worth the Money

“It’s like a Mercedes-Benz. You drive it off the lot, it loses half its value," says artist Peter Lik, describing his own work. This brutal article from the New York Times examines the extraordinary amounts of money that people continue to spend on Lik's work and how he has created his own speculative — and lucrative — economy.

Lik's success opens a debate as to what qualifies as art or, more particularly, fine art. 

As the article observes, Lik is offering his customers an opportunity to buy art — a prospect that offers opportunities for investment, but often seems inaccessible. I've seen it myself. Having photographed a few interiors in London's Kensington, the super-rich frequently litter their walls with incredible artworks. I've seen huge pieces, each worth tens of thousands of pounds, adorning the hallways of family homes, all chosen by an art buyer whose advice has been sought to track down works that fit the space, the decor, and the rest of the buyer's collection and that will also offer a long-term return on the investment.

The fine art world is effectively a shadow banking system; it allows the transfer of capital across borders through trading in art that remains one of the least regulated commercial activities in the world. In this system, price-fixing, insider trading, and laundering money is alarmingly simple.

As Robert Hewison notes in his book "Cultural Capital," artists are brands. They "synthesise celebrity and accessibility into the ultimate cultural commodity." Art itself is "an ideal means of absorbing cultural capital," allowing both investment opportunities alongside the ability to demonstrate social status. 

The New York Times article notes the explosion of money being spent on art in recent years, citing the increasing profits of auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's since 2003. Some would suggest that the financial crash of 2008 prompted investors to look elsewhere to put their money and fine art has, bizarrely, been a stable investment, perhaps in part because of the continuing lack of regulation.

Lik's success is the product of this growth combined with his own savvy sense of how to sell something for a lot more than it is worth. He is tapping into a market of new art buyers who want a piece of the action, have limited knowledge of the art world, and are led to assume that because the prices in Lik's galleries are always increasing, this will continue to happen once their newly purchased print is hanging on their wall.

Lik has been a subject of much discussion of late following the investigation into "Moonlit Dreams" (1,2), now acknowledged by Lik's own studio as a composite. I have not been able to discover the origins of any supposed assertion that Lik's work is all composed in-camera as popularly believed, but it is now confirmed by Lik's gallery that "Moonlit Dreams" is, in fact, a composite. Given the number of editors working for him, it would not be a surprise to me if some of the works that are for sale in his galleries were produced by his team, the finished product having never had any connection to the camera in Lik's hands. As long as people believe that Lik made his art, it doesn't matter.

How this now-debunked assumption that all of his images are authentic came about is not particularly important. What is important is that the assumption was there and widely reported, and those buying his images believed that they were buying a photograph and not a digitally manufactured composition. Whether Lik ever made this claim is irrelevant; to a degree, however, his work sells on the value of that assumption. As we're often told, we are in a post-truth world.

Like any investment, fine art is speculative, and speculation flies around Lik. He is proof that if you have enough money to pay enough people to tell the rest of the world that you are famous, you will be famous. If you can afford to tell enough people something extraordinary, they will retell that story regardless of its truth, divorcing it from its own reality or lack thereof.

My old art teacher would describe Lik's work as "chocolate box." If pushed, he would explain that this means "populist tat." There is always space in the art world for chocolate boxes, but I would argue that these chocolate boxes are more prone to a fall in value than other, more weighty (some would say, "pretentious") artworks, such as those produced by Gursky, Sherman, or Brandt. And Lik himself seems to acknowledge this when he says that his photos are like a luxury car, with half of the value disappearing as soon as you drive it off the forecourt.

The financial value of the work of the fine art heavyweights — Sherman, Gursky, Adams, etc. — is in part based on the aesthetics, but, importantly, also on their cultural significance: their potential to reflect on, question, challenge, or inform how society functions. The works implicitly represent more than what their visuals explicitly convey. If an image is pure surface, I doubt it has the potential to retain its value, never mind increase in value. 

That said, this might flip. Lik's prints might acquire cultural capital because they have achieved a level of fame for their pure superficiality, of their ability to play the art world at its own game, and for epitomizing the early 21st century's capacity to be bought by rhetoric and surface.

Lik is a chancer. But in the art world, that's not an insult; the art industry is made up of artists trying by all manner of means to convince those with money that their work is of value — or even, increasing value. If Lik has achieved this, then kudos. It doesn't mean that I think his work is of any worth or merit, but I could say the same about a vast chunk of the fine art market. It's not to my taste, and just because I think that it's populist tat doesn't mean that I should be sniffy about anyone spending thousands of dollars on it.

My advice: if you fall in love with one of Lik's stunning photographs (or composites), spend whatever you are willing to spend to have a beautiful print hanging on your wall. But at the very least, sit down and watch "Exit Through the Gift Shop," first. Alternatively, save yourself some money and download something very similar to Lik's work from Unsplash such as the image at the top of this page. In thirty years, it could well be just as valuable as a Peter Lik original.

Lead image is by Luca Huter.

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55 Comments

Wes Jones's picture

I honestly never heard of Lik until the FStoppers video discussing "Moonlit Dreams". Now that I see his work, why did it take so long for someone to call him out on those terrible moon composites? Clouds BEHIND the moon? Really?

Leigh Miller's picture

Then you need to get out a little more...despite your opinion of his work the man is very well known in the Photo industry. It's a little disingenuous to claim that you never heard of him before now.

How long have you been involved in photography?

Wes Jones's picture

I have been involved in photography as a hobby since 1978. I obviously lack your vast experience.

Leigh Miller's picture

Well Wes...we have both been around in this industry long enough to have heard of the guy at least once. So cut the crap.

Why? Why do you have to get so pissy with someone simply for not having heard of Peter Lik? Take an ex-lax.

The same here. I had never heard of him but I knew his work.
Well anyway good for him. I would like to get paid ten of thousands for one of my pictures.

Leigh Miller's picture

hmmm ok...is photography your full time job?

Leigh Miller's picture

Cool...I spent the first 8 years of my life on a tiny island before moving back to mainland USA. I heard of Lik, Adams, Avedon before there was an internet.

BTW: I apologize if the tone of my comment seemed rude. Enjoy retirement! I'm sure you earned it :-)

Michael Holst's picture

Good for you! I had never heard of Lik before. There are too many photographers to count and maybe I've seen Lik's work but I don't memorize the names of people who create photographs that I don't appeal to what I think is good. I also don't pay attention to the gallery part of photography because I consider it a scam so why would I have to know who Lik is?

Chris PLUNKETT's picture

Before the article here on Fstoppers, I could only actually name seven photographers,and despite getting out quite a lot,Lik was not one of them.
Daguerre,Niepce,Adams,Bailey,Snowdon,Cartier-Bresson and myself.
I'm not in 'the industry' as it seems to assume that everyone with a camera is but have been taking photos as a hobby since the early 1970s.Knowing the names of allegedly famous photographers that are of no consequence to me and my hobby has no more meaning to me than some bloke with an afro and rubbish taste in T shirts and what format he uses to record the photos he takes.

Oh I forgot my mate Tom,he's a photographer,so that's eight.

Michael Holst's picture

"Knowing the names of allegedly famous photographers that are of no consequence to me..."

Pretty much sums up our industry regardless of the level of shooter. A photographer doesn't need to concern themselves with anything other than their own work and being proud of it. Mr Miller sounds a bit vicarious in his pretentious obsession with Peter Lik.

Motti Bembaron's picture

No knowing a photographer, regardless how famous he/she is, does not reflect on the that person's ability to to take photos or being genuinely serious about photography, either as a career or as a hobby. Many, me included, are not into knowing people everybody else thinks we should know.

For example, the Times article speaks of the "giants" Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman. The latter sounds familiar but that's about it. I have no idea who they are let alone know anything about their art.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Leigh, I know this is the internet and we can hide behind our anonymous computer screens from afar - but there's no need for rudness. Comments like "cut the crap" are unwelcome here.

I've been in the industry for nearly 30 years and I've never heard of Lik either. I'm sure I've heard of people you haven't - there are a lot of people in our world.

So be nice - life is more fun that way.

Andy Day's picture

Wholeheartedly agree. Leigh, your aggression is out of place, inappropriate and completely unnecessary.

Leigh Miller's picture

I'll say as I please first of all.

No aggression yada yada yada. Anyone who has been in this business since 1978 cannot in good conscience say they haven't heard something of Peter Lik. You may not like his work and for whatever reason you may not even like him. It's impossible to deny that the man has been wildly prolific and successful in ways many of wish we could be. My paycheque isn't too shabby but I'm sure his is better.

The point of my reply to that gentleman was to illustrate that as we try to diminish PL we in turn throw crap on our industry. Lawyers, Doctors, Accountant etc don't bad mouth each other's work the way we do. That's because they are a business and to keep the business rolling they have to support each other.

Saying "i never heard of the guy", "I can't believe people pay for that" etc. is complete crap...and it's killing our business.

Leigh Miller's picture

Oh...he's the first one in our business?

We are all honest about the work we do?

Leigh Miller's picture

Hmm ok...well I just don't know how to reply to that. Faking it for art/effect/impact is not new. If everyone got sued because they took some artistic liberties with an image there wouldn't be any space in the courts...bad enough as they are.

Michael Dougherty's picture

People were saying the same thing about Lik before he started doing composites. He almost invented the concept of over-saturated. Now a lot of people do it and don't think twice.

Andy Day's picture

By all means, say as you please. What you said was rude, inappropriate and completely unnecessary.

Leigh Miller's picture

Baloney. I call big fat BS. There is zero way you are in the business for 30 and missed this guy's name in passing at least. Who else haven't you heard of...Avedon?

The guy clearly wrote that he is a hobbyist. I've been a hobbyist photographer for about 20 years and I've never heard of Lik before this most recent issue with "Moonlit Dreams" either. There is no reason that I should have heard of him. To compare him to Avedon or Adams is ridiculous. Aside from the banality of his work, there is no resale market and apparently no one talks about him aside from to discuss how many prints he sells. If you are not in the business of selling fine art prints and you have no interest in that business, then it is very likely you would never know of him unless you happened to wander into one of his galleries randomly.

Michael Holst's picture

I'm getting the feeling that you're Peter Lik and super offended that no one knows who you are. hah

Leigh Miller's picture

LOL I wish...I would take a month off and head to "parts unknown" in a cut-off jeans jacket and cowboy shit kicker boots.

Michael Holst's picture

It's confirmed people! He's Mr. Lik

Lee Christiansen's picture

Leigh, you really are attaching too much importance to knowing a few names that you consider important.

I actually started in 1978 when I checked. I've never heard of Lik before, and I've never heard of Avedon. So what? I'll bet there are people I've heard of that you don't know.

Knowing a few names matters nothing, and questioning someone's professioanl standing because they don't know the same names that you do is a rediculous stance.

Word to the wise - saying "I'll say as I please" just means you feel empowered be as rude as you feel without regard to others. Such a position merely reduces your position.

I weigh my photographic ability over the ability to "know" a few names - particualrly when those names from what I can tell are brought into disrepute. I'll choose other names to hold dear.

Leigh Miller's picture

LOL c'mon dude...you actually think I consider "names" I've heard to be critical to my career in this business?

When I studied Law I heard of Johnny Cochrane. When I was in the corporate world I heard of Ross Perot.

Knowing those names had nothing to do with my success in the roles I held at that time. But I heard of em'...

I've been in photography (professionally) for about 6 or 7 years. The mortgage gets paid, the cottage is paid for...the cars are paid fo. None of that happened because I knew Peter Lik's name...but I still heard of him.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Well your comments are placing that emphasis. I don't know many names, don't care to.

But even if I did know a few, I wouldn't admonish others who didn't know the names that I knew.

Civility is an art best learned early on... dude.

Leigh Miller's picture

Later for that PC sh*t.

You should care about the people of note in your profession/hobby for a variety of reasons.

The man had a spot on a major news network for f-sakes. Forget the crocodile dundee stuff...he's known. Pure and simple. Unless you have been under a rock or completely out of touch with what's going on in the industry, you have heard his name.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Now you're a relative newbie in the industry as a pro so I'll cut you some slack. But after that, well we're having a bit of a laugh at you for your insolence. I don't need to be in touch with what others are doing - my clientele aren't interested either.

I set my own pace and my clients love me for it. A handful of awards, shooting all over the world, respected by my peers, dealers all over the UK know me by name, manufacturers send me prototype to test, blue-chip client base, Linkedin UK sole prferred headshot photographer...

If I see an image I like, I'll learn from it. If there is a photographer I respect, then I'll remember his / her name.

You feel free to follow people you think are famous. The rest of us will follow our craft.

But please - do go on... you are making us smile.

Leigh Miller's picture

LOL newbie...haven't been called that since the 3rd grade but ok.

I'm glad you mentioned craft though...it's a word all the whiners should get real acquainted with. It's what separates "us" from the guys with cameras.

And ya...thanks for schoolin' me ol' man ;-)

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