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

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Michael Holst's picture

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

Please elaborate why.

David Penner's picture

Its possible that a lot of the people saying they had never heard of Peter Lik have seen his work before but just never heard the name or dont remember it. You seem to be really upset that people dont know the guys name. lol
Some people just arent great with names. Even with everything that has been going on with him lately if in a year someone asks me about Peter Lik I'll most likely say I dont know who he is.

David Hynes's picture

Never heard of Peter Lik ever. His work looks pretty amateurish in my opinion, oversaturated / HDR esque composite style images. Been shooting since I was a kid and he hasn't crossed my feed ever until Fstoppers posted something about it.

There are hundreds and thousands of photographers out there. You just can't know or even hear about all of them. I have been in this business full time for twenty two years and heard of Peter Lik two years ago. Does that somehow make me any less of a photographer? Not at all! Like I said we can't know everyone in this industry.
I'm of the opinion that if you present a piece of work for sale as a photograph then it had better be a true photograph not a composite. If it's a composite image made of several photographs then it should be presented that way. To say it's a photograph when indeed it is a composite is misleading and dishonest in my opinion.

to be honest i have never heard of him either. bit looking at his pics i dont find them worth 1 million dollars. (insert Dr. Evil pic). i know that was a 1 off. i do like his pics but what is the fuzz about ? i see a pic of purple flowers in a forrest in europe,. actually i know where that is. its in belgium and i will be shooting it in march. can i now too ask 5k for that pic ? no,. reason is that prices are ,what ever the F,, someone is willing to pay for it. van Gogh couldnt sell his art for a beer, now they are worth millions. it has all to do with the name. look at the kardashians, nothing special but they make millions by not being able to sing, dance, act or anything besides their name is well known. its all about the name. invest less in your skill and more in selling your name.

Michael Holst's picture

Also, there's a ton of repeating cloud textures that are literally right next to each other. It's like he didn't even try to make it believable!

Michael Dougherty's picture

Peter Lik used to have a pretty good show on TV where he went around the world photographing natural icons like Yosemite of the Grand Canyon. He did some impressive shooting. It was big, and it was bold. I believe that is where he got his reputation. However, it seems that his stuff in the last several years is more the product post processing than original image capture.

Leigh Miller's picture

He wouldn't be the first...and certainly not the last artist/photographer etc who's work will be sought after and command huge $$. It's never had anything to do with what we like or think is good. It's what someone, somewhere, somehow is willing to pay for it.

I don't see his work as being any more or less interesting than "others" who have come before him.

And frankly...anyone of us would take his paycheque over our own...so...b*tch please.

Adam T's picture

Fine are prices are mostly for the rich to use a tax write off, then they store the pieces in the Geneva free port art vaults.

Lik just won the lottery on being one of the few that get priced to store, no one cares about is work

dale clark's picture

I really do not see where the controversy lies. If people want to spend so much money on whatever art, then more power to them. So there is no post processing and touch ups in an Annie Leibovitz portrait? Andy Warhol is considered a genius. Warhol painted pictures of Campbell Soup cans http://artdaily.com/news/15731/Andy-Warhol-s-Campbell-Soup-Sells-For--11...

I hadn't heard of him until recently either. Since all of the discussions were revolving around whether his photographs were "real" or "fake" I initially took the bait and assumed I should have an opinion about the guy because he might be reflecting poorly on the photography community. But come on. This guy is awesome. I don't say that because I think he's a good artist or because I think I'd even care to have a conversation with him in a bar (he sounds like a total tool). He's awesome because he's exposing the "Fine Art" world for what it really is: a bunch of people with too much money who are completely full of s**t. He's not selling snake oil to a struggling grandma or stealing your 401k. As far as I'm concerned he's making an open mockery of pretentious galleries by selling at their prices without their approval. I'm sure that pisses some people off to no end, and that makes me smile. 6.5 million for "Phantom"? I mean, it's ok, but I've also seen better shots of Antelope Canyon on Instagram (real and composite). But if he's convinced somebody who has $6.5 million to throw around for artwork they know nothing about that it's worth it, good for him. And if they can't resell it for more than a few hundred dollars, good for him again. It reminds me of a movie I saw a while back called "Incognito", which took a fairly humorous stab at the whole thing. "When are you gonna realize that all of this art crap is a fraud? Otherwise, how could the same picture be worth $10 million or zip based on, what, a signature? Rembrandt is priceless. Donovan is worthless. That's not art. That's autographs." Bingo.

Andy, in the article you say "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".

I can help you out on that. Let's take a trip through the "Way Back Machine" to 2012 and check out Lik's new release of January 2012 - Bella Luna:

https://web.archive.org/web/20120103132017/http://www.lik.com/thework/ne...

In Lik's "story" about the photograph to get prospective buyers all drooling he says:

"I was white-knuckled as I set up the mammoth lens, filling the viewfinder with this balanced scene, the tree framed amongst the rocks and the low lying clouds added to the tension… this had to work. The desert silence was stunning, my pulse raced, I could hear the blood running through my veins. Then, I saw the horizon starting to glow. The golden sphere slowly rose in front of me. I was totally stunned. I couldn't believe it. So connected to this lunar giant that I was trembling. Such an impact on my life. I pressed the shutter, a feeling I'll never forget. The moon, tree, and earth."

Hmmm, a single press of the shutter Peter??

Just do a google search for "peter lik moon shot not possible" and tell google to only give you results before 2018, you'll find a ton of forum postings going into details as to why this shot is not possible.

Yes, Peter Lik has asserted that his work is done all in-camera when it's clearly a composite image.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Tyler. Really appreciate you digging this out!

Michael Holst's picture

He's a better sales person than he is photographer.

Also, there are innumerable first-hand reports by people who can vouch that his gallery salespeople will tell you that an image is "real", if they think you're actually a potential buyer and they might make a sale, ...or if they just think you're the type of person who is naive enough to believe, and furthermore that "believing in it" would add to the artistic value of the image.

Which is, of course, a load of crap. Digital composite artwork is still art, nobody is arguing against that. What they're arguing against, is the fact that certain artists take a whole bunch of completely different photographs, composite them together to look like ONE photograph, and then try and pass it off as *a* real photo. It's not. It's a whole bunch of photos from different places, times, focal lengths, etc. Does that still mean you're a photographer? Who knows. But it's not *A* photograph anymore. And everybody seems terrified to make that distinction, because it will somehow destroy the magic, or worse the value, of their art.

It's high time digital art stood on its own two feet as an artistic medium, instead of pretending that it still falls into the category of "a photograph"...

Lee Christiansen's picture

The true thing of value in the art world is the signature at the bottom. After that, most collectors I'm sure are less in interested in the actual work than the author.

Ask a collector if he'd like a Picasso for £5000 and let's see if he'd ask to see if he liked the picture first. Nope - it's a Picasso, and that's what counts first.

I talked with an agent once about a few of my limited edition images. The first thing hje asked was if I'd been featured in anything well known, or been written about in something international. Never got to the gritty subject of the actual images... but if I was famous.... ah that's a different thing.

Sad really.

Don’t encourage people to use Unsplash!😡

Robert Teague's picture

I've been aware of Peter Lik from the time he was unknown in the US (having seen his work in many places in the Australian Outback). He's a good marketer (I've visited his Waikiki gallery multiple times), but in terms of Australian photography, Ken Duncan is much better. I've not been comfortable with the work he has done in the last few years.

John Sammonds's picture

We can all sit down and moan about someones work, Jim is better than Bob but Fred is the tops rubbish. The people buying photography are not photographers but the public looking for a beautiful picture for there wall space. So if they buy a picture from someone else and not yours get over it but don't dish the guy. When a guy is the owner of 13 gallery's and employing quite a few people to sell his art there must be something more than luck. As for composite pictures this is something that has been going on for hundreds of years, its nothing new.

Michael Holst's picture

There's a difference between a good artist and a good marketer and this is what we are seeing here. The gallery industry is pretty scammy anyways because it tries to tell everyone what "good" art is so they can sell. Art is subjective and they try to make it objective. I'm judging Lik's work based on the image in the opening of this article because I've never knowingly seen his work and it reminds me of something someone would create on their first day of photoshop class.

If Lik is indeed the Ansel Adams (or the Picasso) of digital "dreamscape" artwork, then why not? Maybe not $6.5 million, but I don't see why his work shouldn't be worth thousands. He's created a reputation for himself. He's got galleries around the world, in luxurious areas where high-rollers are likely to shop. Anything that a "number one" artist or celebrity does is worth a lot, simply because society places that much value on the most prominent /anything/...

The actual issue is that he is, or was, pretending, or lying, about (some of) the artwork. That is, until the gradual rise in "composite sleuthing" started calling him out.

If wild composite work pretends to be the result of a single shutter click, it is foregoing its respect as digital art, and attempting to "steal" the respect that would have been given to the image if it had in fact been created with a single click.

Of course some people just don't care, and they can't see past the "art is art" aspect of it. That's fine. But many, many viewers are quite disappointed any time they see a beautiful image, assume that it is *a* photograph, ...and then find out that it's actually a whole bunch of completely different photographs collaged together.

Either way, I think digital art will eventually earn a permanent place of respect, in the realm of artistic genres. Photography itself is almost 200 years old now, and at first it was not considered art at all!

But, digital composite / collage artwork will only hold itself back, if it continues to pretend to be photography, to pretend, whether by flat-out lying, or by a quiet lie of omission, or angrily defended secrecy, that a wild composite image is actually *a* photograph...

dale clark's picture

Is the real sore spot that Lik digitally manipulates photos OR the fact Lik digitally manipulates photos and makes big $$$$. Nobody gripes on this forum about the tacky photos you see in home stores, etc...You know where the scene is in black in white but the fruit is in color. If a particular artist did such and "made it big"...then everyone here would be in an uproar. How about all the cliche' photos that are posted on this site everyday? Pictures of the overly tattooed photo model has turned into the cliche' bike against a brick wall. Class envy exists in every segment of society.

I’ve got to cal BS on the NY Times article. Think about it for a moment: Why would ANY artist say his work loses its value like a new Mercedes? Hello??? FALSE INFO.

No artist would say that. NY Times trying to sell papers. By the way, this was not in the news section but rather a small feature story that no other news organization reported.

Even Art News called to congratulate him on his $6.5 million sale and wrote a nice complmentary article.

Andy Day's picture

I think you underestimate the journalistic standards that NYTimes upholds through its editorial processes. If you're genuinely convinced that Lik didn't say this, I strongly urge you to contact journalist David Segal and ask him about the interview. Newspapers aren't blogs; they don't just say whatever they want. If Lik didn't say it, his lawyers would be suing the ass off the Times and Segal, and he has some pretty deep pockets so I can't imagine he would hesitate.

Ronny Gene's picture

Gursky is not my taste, I fell in love with Lik's work back when I was in Key West, Florida. It doesn't matter what other people think that includes the art world elitist. If you like something its up to you the individual to make that decision. We are all human beings here and no one has the right to say whats right or wrong in the art world. Art is worth as much as the individual is willing to pay for it. I've seen abstract art go for millions that wasn't even worth to me anything but to someone else it may be worth its weight in gold. You listen to people and you will never make it in the world.