Is This Ansel Adams Photo up for Auction at Sotheby's Criminally Undervalued?

Is This Ansel Adams Photo up for Auction at Sotheby's Criminally Undervalued?

Some of Ansel Adams' most famous works will go up for auction at Sotheby's in December. The labeled prices seem shockingly low for someone with Adams' reputation. Is this a reflection of where photographers sit in the art world?

When you hear the name of Sotheby's, you think of high-priced auctions and the rich and wealthy throwing wads of cash at items that the economically elite of this world like to dabble in, and the kind that you and I will most likely never get our hands on. For an item to go up for auction at Sotheby's, we imagine that it must be something pretty rare and special. From December 14, Sotheby's, New York, will be holding an auction for some of Ansel Adams' most famous works. If you don't know who Adams is, he's about as famous as they come in the photography world for his black and white landscape works in the National Parks of the U.S. The works are being put up for sale by the longtime collector and oil company CEO, David H. Arrington, and represent one of the most significant and impressive private collections of Adams' work in the world.

However, when I saw the expected prices of some of the works listed, I was rather surprised. For example, an early print of "Moonrise," "Hernandez," and "New Mexico" are expected to get between $700,000 and $1,000,000. Sure, that's a pretty impressive price for a printed work, but when you think that Peter Lik's "Phantom" (supposedly) fetched $6.5 million, and Andreas Gursky's "Rhein II" got $4.3 million, Adam's expected price seems criminally low to me, considering his iconic status in the world of photography. Also, when you think that Picasso's 1955 painting, "Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O')," fetched $179.4 million in a Christie's auction, it reinforces how low the expected price for Adams' work is.

What do you think? Are these expected prices low, or do they represent fair value for Adams' work? On a bigger note, do photographers sit way down the pecking order when it comes to the art world? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Ryan Cooper's picture

I think that generally speaking fine art collectors want work that feels "exclusive" and I just don't think Adams' work fits that bill. Most of his portfolio was random landscapes in the States that to the untrained eye look just like any other landscape shot put through a black/white filter. His achievements were unquestionably impressive, but the work itself just doesn't hold up as an iconic piece of fine art. At least not enough to project into the millions in terms of value.

Javier Gutierrez's picture

As much as I hate to say this, you speak truth.

Adam Palmer's picture

Gurskey kind of presents himself as an artist who just happens to take photographs. Ansel Adams is more of a photographers photographer. We love him but he never really broke into the snobby art world. Don't even get me started on Lik.

Les Sucettes's picture

I agree, but snobbery has little to do with it. Gursky’s art is more than just pretty pictures... they are among many other things, social and political commentary.

Iain Stanley's picture

Really? Rhein II is political or social commentary?

Tammie Lam's picture

This looks very pro-Trump.

Iain Stanley's picture

I actually have no idea what that means.
1. I’m Australian
2. I live in Japan
3. I don’t care much for US politics, or any kind of politics
4. I’m asking about a specific Gursky image, in which I’m struggling to see political or social commentary, much less a bazillion dollar price tag

Sanwal Deen's picture


I think what makes the Rhein II interesting is that:

1) originally there were towers and a lot of other things in the background that Gursky removed digitally after having his negatives scanned. To do that for a photo that large in size, in an era when the pinnacle of computing was the pentium 4, was a rather remarkable thing to Do.

2) by removing those elements, Gursky Is recreating a beauty that we can never have in an industrialized world, which is somewhat of a social commentary

3) it has to be considered within the broader context of his work. Taken in the context of his other work, such as the 99 cent store picture, or the north korea photographs, he seems to be trying to say something about consumerism, populism etc..

4) some of his more recent work, like that image of the world map, he spent months recreating the ocean to scale because he could only get high-res sattelite pictures of the islands. I don't know the exact process, but it is quite nice to see someone just dedicate themselves for months or years to the creation of a single image.

5) the size of that image is huge!

Personally for me, as much as I like Gursky, I do sometimes get a sense of coldness from his images (but that might be the point of his work). I think that sense of detachment and coldness can sometimes be off putting.

Les Sucettes's picture

Ian you are rather silly for the author of the original article ... Gursky is not worth a bazillion ... whatever that means.

If you don’t understand art, perhaps writing an article about art isn’t really your thing.

If you want to know what is in Gursky’s portfolio... maybe Google it. Maybe read up about him before you make a social commentary about him or the art world.


Tammie Lam's picture

Had no idea Australians living in Japan have no sense of humor, sorry...
Answering your question - no, there’s no politics in that image.

Les Sucettes's picture

Sanwal already mentioned all the rational / technical reasons why Rhine II is special

Also, and more importantly, at this stage Gursky had a body of work that is undeniable and Rhine II cannot be taken out of that context.

That, combined with all the technical and messages illustrated by Sanwal, is the value of Rhine II

Also did you go on location? You should if you are ever in Düsseldorf. If you understand the context you understand Rhine II

Rappaport Arts's picture

This is just my opinion. I believe that whatever "message" an artwork may have, it should be conveyed to the audience by the artwork itself, not by studying a bunch of backstories (although knowing the backstories may add interest to the work). For example, I "understand" Gordon Park's "American Gothic" without having to study who Ms. Ella Watson was and why Parks photographed her the way he did. That, to me, is the power of art. If the audience cannot "understand" Rhine II without knowing the backstory of Düsseldorf, then, IMO, this piece of art fails to express the artist's intention.

Another way to look at it is this: The photo Rhine II itself is just a plain, rather generic landscape. If you don't know the title of it, you'd have no idea of its location and therefore you'd have no idea of its backstory, and so you'd have no idea what the artist's "message" is — IF the artist does intend to express such a "message". IOW, the photo by itself has no power. That's my opinion.

Klaus Enrique's picture

Iain Stanley, you don't understand how art is valued, so maybe you shouldn't be writing articles on a topic that you don't comprehend. Ansel Adams made prints of the same image with abandon. In many cases there is no record of how many prints were made, many were not signed, etc. When you purchase an Ansel Adams print, you are definitely not purchasing anything that is unique. Furthermore, Ansel Adams's work is seen as a cliché in the world of art. His letter against the work of William Eggleston was further proof that the man just didn't get it. Maybe Ansel Adams is your hero, but that doesn't mean that his work is undervalued.

Iain Stanley's picture


Perhaps you should look at the auction site linked in the article...... here’s a screenshot for you

Klaus Enrique's picture

Wow, you don't get it. It doesn't matter that this print is an original. There are hundreds of photos of the exact same image all over the world. That depressed the value for ALL of them!

Iain Stanley's picture

No, I responded specifically to your answer. You told me I didn’t comprehend anything about art values and then told me that Adams printed untold copies of his work and there was little record of signed prints etc. In the case of the item used in this article, you’re wrong on both counts. It was a limited edition print, one of the “exceptionally few of its kind”, and it was signed by Adams.

Klaus Enrique's picture

LOL, limited edition? If so, what is the print number?!? And again, you keep on missing the point. There are hundreds of "'Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico'" prints out there, and most of them are original Ansel Adams prints. What devalues them is not that they are fake. They are devalued by the fact that there are hundreds of them and nobody knows exactly how many. Instead of writing clickbait, next time, why not actually research your subject?

Iain Stanley's picture

No idea. If you’re so sure of yourself, why not contact Sotheby’s and let them know their mistake? I’m just reporting what Sotheby’s has written. You obviously know more, so get in touch with Sotheby’s and set them straight

Klaus Enrique's picture

LOL. Sotheby's is fully aware of this, and that is why the print is appraised at the "Criminally Undervalued" figure of $700,000, which is still, as I am sure you well know, given your extensive research on the matter, about 10 to 40 times higher than a regular Ansel Adams print goes for. At such low prices, undoubtedly you will be acquiring a few of them tomorrow. I'll let Emily know.

Adam Palmer's picture

I have nothing against Gurskey. I just prefer Adams.

Les Sucettes's picture

There is no comparison. Gursky is a far greater and more accomplished photographer and artist.

But you are free to love Adams. Buy his work if you can!

Foto Toad's picture

Maybe these photographs would fetch more at the auction if Adams had replaced the sky with something more dramatic!

Les Sucettes's picture

If only he had Luminosity... sigh 😌

Iain Stanley's picture

I know you’re being humorous and sarcastic but ironically, Adams was renowned for his work in the darkroom with shadows, blacks, contrasts etc. So I daresay had he lived in the modern era he probably would have used sky replacement!

Rhonald Rose's picture

True, read somewhere he was a chemist than a photographer. He spend hours in post processing to get what he wants.

Tyler Longfellow's picture

I can see where you're coming from when making that statement, but I don't believe he would do that. That kind of editing is doable in the darkroom.

Here's an example of someone doing such a thing:

Here is another example of editing with film photography:

Even removing things from photos in the darkroom was doable:

The techniques were there, and Adams was quite capable of doing these things. He didn't though.

Timothy Roper's picture

Those aren't criminally low prices; those prices mentioned for others' works are criminally high.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yep, it staggers me that people have $50 million spare cash, and they’re willing to spend it on a painting.....

Rhonald Rose's picture

Painting world is as crazy as photography world. Photography world is $70 billion and art world is (painting) $61 billions.

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