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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Iain Stanley's picture

Haha I have to agree. I often listen to podcasts of young photographers, even surf photographers, and when I hear them rattle off their inspirations, I just count down from 5 until I hear Ansel Adams. I mean, really, a young Australian surf photographer quoting Ansel Adams. I bet they wouldn’t know how to spell his name, let alone pick him out from a row of 5 random people

jim hughes's picture

I think current art prices are driven by very rich people looking for places to put their money when the stock market is way up and running on fumes.

They're speculating on where they think the price of an art piece will go in the future. Adams is well known but may not have a lot of upside left at this point. Peter Lik might still be seen as a hot artist, and has the promotional skill to convince buyers he's on his way to immortality.

IMHO Adams' solid, elegant and timeless work will be around long after Lik's oversaturated cliches are forgotten.

Iain Stanley's picture

I agree. Although, interestingly, looking at the owner of the collection of Adams’ work going up for auction, I would hazard a guess and say he’s looking for quick cash to recoup Covid losses. Just a guess, though.

Jacques Cornell's picture

I learned photography making my own B&W prints for many years. I had photo books with reproductions of Adams' work and admired them, but wasn't particularly smitten. Then, the first time I went to an exhibition of his original prints, I walked in the door and my jaw immediately hit the floor. The prints were/are GORGEOUS beyond anything I could imagine. Any landscape photographer who's never seen them owes it to him/herself to go to an exhibition at a museum or gallery to gain an understanding of the true potential of B&W printing. No mass-produced reproduction can possibly get anywhere in the vicinity of doing the originals justice. It's just an entirely different experience.

It's kind of sad, really, that most people see images only on computer screens and think that's as good as things can get.

Jim Bolen's picture

Yep, I have always been a huge fan of his work, but the first time I saw an original, I had to pull my jaw off the floor. Undescribable to someone who has never seen one.

Justin Sharp's picture

Criminally? You can do better than that. Hyperbole might get more clicks, but definitely less respect.

Michael Rapp's picture

"Value" and "art" in a narrative context always gives me a kind of cringe. Since there is no intrinsic increase in value by combining the ingredients in a specific way (like, i. e. metal, rubber, wire and more stuff makes up a car), art's value soley lies in the proverbial eye of the beholder.
So the value actually *is* what the current market agrees on, supply, demand and all.
My favorite anecdote is that of the dutch Tulip Bulb Craze in the 17th century. There was heavy money in Old Amsterdam, and that money found a new hobby: new and rare strains of tulips. And the prices exploded, at its peak, a single bulb of a certain variant could fetch a price of a fine city house.
But, literally overnight, the demand vanished. Gone. Zip.Tulips whose "value" yesterday were fortunes, wouldn't compete with onions today.
Which brings me to my next point: art and collectibles are also viewed like stocks: an investement. And part of an investment is the guesswork: Will the price of said collectible go up or down? Will I gain or lose money by buying?
So as much as I love Ansel Adam's work,and as beautiful as I find it, its current "true" value is purely based on its collectibility and future price estimate.

Alex Ragen's picture

The market value of anything is exactly what people are willing to pay for it, no more and no less. Artistic value is another story entirely, but if we’re talking about the asking price at an auction, then we’re talking about market value, not artistic value. The artistic value of Angel Adams’ work is sky high, but it can’t compete with the latest fashion in post modernist junk “art”. Very sad.

Dan Ostergren's picture

If that's what people are willing to pay for them, then unfortunately that's what they're worth.
I think it's a ridiculously high amount of money for a landscape photo to begin with, but to be honest you wouldn't see me complaining if one of my photos fetched that kind of money (hint: it's never going to happen lol).

Ian Goss's picture

Not one mention of the Zone System? Ignorance is bliss indeed!

Chris Williams's picture

As a photographer and graduate of brooks institue back in the 80’s I deeply admired adams work, and even had the chance to meet him. Frankly, I think if his photos sell for such low prices they are a huge bargain. Photography as an art form is dead, and the world has not yet come to realize the genius of adams, and other pioneers of the art form. Especially since any computer nerd with access to stock photos and photoshop can turn out masterpieces that were fully created in a computer, and require none of the long hours in a darkroom, or even having an eye for that magic moment all true photographers live for. Im so suspect of photographers today that when I see a great photo I always doubt if it’s real or computer generated. As time goes on and the true art these great photographers created become more appreciated it will make their prints all the more valuable.

Michael L. McCray's picture

A question of value is how many copies that Adan printed himself exist, When I think of making a print it is the question I ask myself all the time, I can spend as much time as a painter coming up with an image but should I destroy the negative or digital file after a print or two or crank them out. Really interest in the community's thoughts.

Jacques Cornell's picture

I don't believe in artificially creating scarcity. I'd rather sell 10 prints at $100 each and have 10 families enjoying them on their walls rather than selling just one for $1000.

Michael L. McCray's picture

Thank you, Jacques, not sure about artificially creating scarcity. Most of my own work does not make good wall art. Trying to figure out which market.

To share my experiences and observation.

You can buy a print still made from Ansel Adams's negatives but not printed by him. I saw a print of Curtis's image list for $50 while a Ralph Gibson print list for $1500. I sneezed or something bidding at an auction and went over my friend $300 limited for a Salvador Dali signed lithograph. I felt horrible but he picked up another one from the same series of 300 for $50 dollars. He gave a friend an authenticated Ansel Adams authenticated he picked up at a garage sale. Have seen Cindy Sherman listed around $300.

Go figure maybe I should hang bananas on the wall.

Fritz Gessler's picture

1 million $ for a photo !! that's absolutely crazy.
no, mister, it's absolutely the other way round: ALL art is tremendously overrated - a price inflation similar to the real estate inflation of the last 2 decades: there is so much (illegal) money around in the hands of 'collectors' (= super rich oligarchs in russia, china, not to mention saudi princes and internet billionaire-philanthropes like mr. soros/gates/bezos/musk, that they can pay ANY price for everything - just as a means of speculation.
and we should never forget, that photos are NOT art as long as they remain photos... ansel adams' pics remain photos, not an artwork in its own like picassos (extremely ugly) paintings... which are even more overrated.
should I tell you what an 'iconic' pic really is worth? $ 100,- at most (=production cost). why? exactly because they are reproductable ad infinitum. that's the big difference (and advantage) of photography and the very reason that a photography was not considered an artwork... till the late '90ies... when big bankster-speculators looked for new areas of speculation.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"ALL art is tremendously overrated"
So... $150 is too much to ask for one of my prints? Don't tell all the folks who've bought them. Perhaps you could suggest the "correct" price, as opposed to the one that's been determined by, you know, actual buyers. Maybe $1.50?
Or, were you just speaking of your own work?

Fritz Gessler's picture

yes! YOUR works should sell for $ 1,50 - and even this would be too much: because, know what?: in internet you show them for FREE! (i.e. everybody copuld make a screenshot (at fstoppers not even that: they are downloadable!), re'master' it (330dpi) and print it... voila! NO PHOTO is an original ARTwork and never will be. and that's for good.

Jacques Cornell's picture

As I said to Bela,
You simply don't understand what markets are or how value is determined. Fortunately, you do not get to set prices for anyone but yourself.
I suggest you continue to work for "exposure", if you can even get that kind of work.

Fritz Gessler's picture

markets are fake value exchange nowadays... ever heard of the dotcom bubble in 2000 or the realestate bubble 2008? :)) next big crash will be the art bubble: because it's fantasy fake value, not ral value anymore. if mr. ai weiwei shits on a piece of paper he can sell it for 0ne million because he is aiweiwei, right?
if one crook of art merchant can sell a photo just becaus it's from famous mr. adams for 1 million, you should laugh about this pure stupidity, instead of worship the market :)
if anybody was in his right mind, then it was banksy (ever heard about that guy?:), who let destroy his famous piece of art immediateyl after/in the act of the auction ...

Jacques Cornell's picture

Do you have any relevant experience? I have a Master's in economics. Market values may seem odd to the average Joe - they do to me - as do the salaries of professional athletes. Nonetheless, there are well-understood mechanisms by which markets set prices. And, much as you may wish to apply your own priorities to set prices of art, you don't get to. Personally, I'd value Adams' work, or Bresson's, higher than some of the modern work under discussion here. But, I'm not the buyer for this stuff. And, neither are you. You can yell "fake" all you want, but nobody's listening, you'll affect nothing, and you won't advance the understanding of readers here about exactly WHY the market prices are what they are, which is the topic of this article.

Bela Acs's picture

If some very rich people buy your images for millions even those pictures are not even worth a couple of dollars, the photographers made it.Like Peter Link, Gursky, Cindy Sherman and so on. Look Cindy Sheman images each worth millions and show them a portrait photographer and ask how much are them, the answer would be 10 cents in Stock. These auctions are only for people who sometimes don't even know or even attend just buying things for future profit. Look Van Gogh (broder) only sold one painting of his life and look at now, every paintings are worth over $100 millions.I hope some day a whealty guy will pay couple of millions of my garbige pictures and my garbige will be on some auctions. Anyway, full respect for Ansel Adams work but his pictures are not worth a million only for collect everithing what makes money oil companies CEOs, like David H. Arrington.

Jacques Cornell's picture

If someone pays millions of dollars, it is, by definition, "worth" millions of dollars. It's called "market value". You may be willing to pay only a few dollars, but you are not the market.

"the answer would be 10 cents in Stock."
Also, the market for stock photography is not the market for all photography, much less for fine art photography.

You simply don't understand what markets are or how value is determined. Fortunately, you do not get to set prices for anyone but yourself.

Timothy Roper's picture

Years ago, I read a story about treasure hunters who recovered thousands of gold doubloons from some sunken Spanish galleon. I don't remember the details, except the part where the story mentioned how all the coins would be worth much more than their weight in gold. And that raised a question I ponder frequently: how could hunks of gold be worth (or at least sell for) more than the price of gold? Obviously that general question applies to anything being sold, but this story lays it out in such simple, and stark terms.

Robert Lype's picture

Lets face it most folks have never had the chance to see an original Ansel Adams print in person if they have had the chance it might change their minds. For years I put food on the table as B&W custom printer specializing in large format as well as shooting with large format (ok Iam showing my age) a silver based print looks far better than any digital print if done properly.
As for the price of the price one has to wonder if the prints still have the original look or have they aged or faded the archival procedures used back then were not able to be tested. Just he simple fact Ansel set the standards and photographic procedures are still used today. If photographers would study his using his published books and incorporate them to days equipment they would find the quality of their work increase.
If I had the money laying around to buy a original to save a peace of history there would be no second thoughts.

C E's picture

Ansel Adams will always command the prices his work sells for, year in and year out. Lik and Gursky hit high values but then it tumbles (if Lik's was even a real sale). Artnet just posted a story that talked about Gursky. His work averaged $600,000 in 2011 and averaged $85,000 this year. Contemporary art (minus a few blue chip artists) is a thing of the moment. With Adams you could buy that this year, and put it up for sale next year and get your money back because it's a stable market. Here's the artnet story...

Ziggy Stardust's picture

Adams is cerebral work.
It takes a bit of passion to unlock wallets.

James Ranson's picture

Adam’s work is a sad reflection of our zeitgeist

Richard (Rick) Langlois's picture

"For example, an early print of "Moonrise," "Hernandez," [and] "New Mexico" [are] expected to get..."

written as though these are these three works?
Or could you be referring to "Moonrise [over] Hernandez New Mexico"?

Iain Stanley's picture

Not my final edit Richard....

Unsubscribe Me's picture

It’s worth what someone will pay for it, that’s about it

Rappaport Arts's picture

Disclaimer up front. This is NOT a comment on the ARTISTIC value of Adams' works. Don't want to get into it here. Rather it is a comment on the INVESTMENT value of an Adams print. As famous as Adams is, his works aren't that collectable (from the investment POV). The reason is that Adams produced a huge amount of prints. Some he himself printed, some his apprentices / assistants printed. Sometime he signed, sometimes he didn't. Sometimes he approved and signed / initialed prints he didn't himself printed. IOW, it is very difficult to determine which copies are totally his "originals". This deceases the collectability of his works significantly. To make matter worse, at least for a very long time (I don't know about it now), his estate, The Ansel Adams Gallery, still sells copies of Adams works printed not by him. In the world of art collection, originality and rarity are two of the most important factors.

I emphasize that this is NOT a dig at Adams as an artist. In fact I quite like the fact that he wasn't "highbrow". He wanted his arts to reach a large audience and he wanted his arts to be accessible to the masses. I quite admire that.

Fritz Gessler's picture

NO PHOTO ever was an ORIGINAL ARTwork and never will be, buddies! and that is the great advantage of photography. all those wanna-be-millionaires here (if I only could sell my pic for 1 million $:)) should know this. and NOBODY should believe that a personal signature or stamp on the print would change that: don't be silly, folks! this could be easily faked nowadays :)
nevermind, to answer to some sarcastic blockheads here: of course, my pics are better than ansel adams' boring and kitschy landscapes. know why? because they show faces, not mountains and cloudscapes.
and I would not sell them for 1 million: I give them for free!
(pearls before swine:))

Dan Ostergren's picture

Hmmmm... meh.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"NO PHOTO ever was an ORIGINAL ARTwork"
You're wrong. A hand-made print is a unique original. If you've never seen an Adams print, you don't understand how different it is from a mass-produced reproduction printed in a book on an offset press.

Richard (Rick) Langlois's picture

Do you care to explain why "NO PHOTO ever was an ORIGINAL ARTwork and never will be..."
I'm not sure I understand your point.
No photo ever was an original artwork? It sounds like you are saying photography can not be art - but that doesn't seem right.

Michael L. McCray's picture

What gives something value is what someone is willing to pay for it. I would be happy to get what was paid for the banana taped to a wall for a print, since I cannot I do not bother to print. You could still buy something printed from an Ansel Adams negative from the Ansel Adams Gallery a friend of mine picked one up at a garage sale. I have seen print off Edwards Curtis plates go for next to nothing. My landlord in New York collected Egyptian art and had a small cat mummy. Sometimes when you go to an art museum you are looking at incredible creations sometimes your just looking at a great con. We can all get jealous and argue it helps drive up the price.