Based on feedback I received about my article investigating the most expensive photobooks ever sold, I reached out to the two largest auction houses in the World to provide a more authoritative list of photobooks sold at auction. What do you expect to see in this list?
Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s press departments provided me with an authoritative list of the highest hammer prices for photobooks over the last decade or so. Without their assistance, this article wouldn’t have been as complete as it is. Any errors are mine.
I’ve tried my best to rule out loose-leaf collections as this seems to be more akin to buying prints instead of photobooks. When there is a bit of a blur between loose-leaf collections and photobooks, I’ve erred on inclusion. For example, if a book is mounted prints with text, even if they are original prints, not press produced, I’ve included them if they’re bound.
We don’t want to slum it, so we’ll start with books selling for around $25,000 and up (all prices in USD unless otherwise noted). I consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable when it comes to the history of photography. But, I was surprised by the number of books that I had only a passing understanding of. Clearly, I have to up my game.
$20,000 to $50,000
Through the juxtaposition of Gowin’s own photographs with text from the book about Stieglitz’s work that addressed his belief in the photograph as a metaphor for lived experience, the young photographer ambitiously entered into discussions about photographic lineage, American identity, and the role of photography as a form of personal expression.
A press-printed version of Dorothea Lange’s An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion sold at Christie’s for $23,750 in 2008. Of note, this version was signed by Lange to Edward Weston.
Lange’s book covers her time working with the Farm Security Administration. Her images have long come to represent not just suffering during the Great Depression but documentary photography itself. This work is still in print. If you haven’t flipped through it and you enjoy documentary photography, it’s worth a look.
Paul Graham’s monograph, A1. The Great North Road, sold at Christie’s for £11,400 GBP in 2007. This version of his rare hard cover printing included an original print. It’s interesting that there were only 75 first edition prints made. Later print versions still command a minimum of $500 on Amazon.
I was pleased when I came across Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment at $25,000 at Christie’s. This first edition copy was signed by Cartier-Bresson to Edward Weston. Cartier-Bresson’s book is still in print. Not strictly speaking a photobook, but worth reading for anyone into photography. I was given a copy of this book and find myself pulling it down for inspiration a few times a year.
Rounding out a Number of Books Selling for Just Less Than $50,000
Weegee’s Naked City, including a few hand written notes explaining certain photos sold for $37,000 at Christie’s in 2008. I still see versions of this sitting on the discount shelves at my local bookstores. I can’t imagine having a copy of the real thing.
A signed copy of Doris Ullman’s Roll, Jordan, Roll was sold at Christies for $39,400 in 2008.
Yoshio Shimozato’s spiral-bound Surrealist Photography Collection, one of only 200 copies, sold at Christie’s for $39,400 in 2008. I find it incredible that a ‘zine from the 40s sold for $39K! Of note, there is a version for sale on ABE Books right now for $29,000 . The condition isn’t as good, but it’s a steal.
$50,000 to $160,000
Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have sold copies of William Bradford’s Arctic Regions. Christie’s for $125,000 and Sotheby’s for £79,250 GBP. There were only 350 copies ever produced. Bradford’s book contains a series of mounted prints and pages of text explaining the memories behind some of the photos.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s have also made it a business to sell Alfred Stieglitz’s work. Sotheby’s sold two copies of Camera Notes in 2012 for $68,500 and Christies sold an entire set of Camera Work, An Illustrated Quarterly Magazine, for $144,000 in 2006. The magazine ran from 1903 to 1907 and included work from most of the major photographers operating at the time, including Edward Steichen. See below for a couple of higher hammer prices for Camera Work.
In 2008, Christie’s sold two copies of Hans Bellmer’s work, La Poupée, The Doll, and Les jeux de la poupée, The Doll’s Games, for $73,000 and $115,000 respectively. Sotheby’s sold a copy of The Doll’s Games for $152,766 in 2016. That’s quite the profit. Considered to be as much an intellectual as a photographer, Bellmer is a prime example of a surrealist photographer. Cindy Sherman counts him as a major influence. It’s worth taking a look at his work if you have a taste for art photography.
It’s interesting that this copy of The Doll’s Games was signed to Jean Brun, a close friend of Bellmer’s. Brun actually hid Bellmer from Vichy authorities in World War II.
A first edition of Robert Frank’s press-printed copy of The Americans sold for $32,200 in 2008 and £43,250 GBP in 2010. I have a few different copies of Frank’s book on my shelf. They’re easy to pick-up at used book stores. If I had to pick from any of the press-printed photobooks sold at auction for my collection, it’d likely buy Frank’s The Americans.
A full set of Ed Ruscha’s books, including Twentysix Gasoline Stations (one of 400 copies) sold at Christies for $121,000 in 2008. The modernism of Ruscha’s gas station photos often eludes me, but I can see the beauty in the simplistic images.
Another piece of Americana, Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War, was sold by Sotheby’s for $158,500 in 2011. Gardner’s book is bound collection of mounted prints. It’s certainly not a photobook by today’s standards, but it certainly is one of the works that launched the photobook genre. After you’ve finished reading, I strongly suggest you take a look at the digitized copy hosted by the MET.
$160,000 to $500,000
A signed edition of Jindřich Štyřský’s Emily Comes to Me in a Dream was sold at Christie’s for $193,000 in 2008.
Štyřský believed that in pornography he had found a destabilizing medium that could be used to subvert established social and artistic norms. The culmination of Štyřský’s involvement with pornography was the release of his erotic masterpiece, Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream, in Prague in May 1933.
In an effort to avoid censors, the volume was published in a small run of only 20 copies. It isn’t safe for work, but it’s well worth the time it takes to look up Štyřský’s work. His rudimentary mixed-media photo collages are both of their time and timeless. Mextures anyone?
As noted above, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have seen auctions for Stieglitz’s Camera work push north of $200,000. Sotheby’s sold a full set in 2011 for $398,500 and Christie’s for $284,800 in 2005.
Another travel-log, Foochow and the River Min, photographed by John Thompson sold for £349,250 GBP at Sotheby’s in 2013. Only 46 copies of the loose-leaf were printed. All of these copies were sold to European ex-pats living in Fuzhou. Because the families of these ex-pats have moved about the world for over a century, most of the copies are lost. Only seven copies are known to still exist.
Man Ray and Paul Eluard’s Facile, Poèmes de Paul Eluard et Photographies de Man Ray sold for a mind boggling €823,500 EUR in 2017 at Christie’s. Comprising just 12 bound prints and a few pages of poetry, press-printed versions of this work go for about $5,000 - $15,000 at auction online. I suppose if you want the real thing, real prints, you’ll have to pay for it. Only five copies of the original edition seem to exist. As a side note, the nudes are of Eluard’s wife.
Finally, we come to the highest selling photobook at auction. Still reigning champ, Edward Curtis’ The North American Indian. The full North American Indian is a 40-volume set containing about 1,500 images. A near perfect edition was sold by Christie’s for $2,882,500. It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of Curtis’ book as a historical artefact. There is controversy over Curtis’ methods and the potential that he posed or removed modern technology to create the feeling of a culture lost in time. But, as a whole, the work helped to establish and to memorialize the lifestyle of North America’s Indigenous peoples.
Did any of these sales surprise you? Did you expect to see something that I haven’t listed? Let me know in the comments below.
Lead image provided by Quincemedia under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 4.0. All other images either in the Public Domain or otherwise attributed in their captions. Thank you to Christie’s Images Ltd. for permission to use their listing images when referring to the respective sales.