Been reading up, trying to figure out how Cindy Sherman's photo of herself dressed as a retro adolescent went for $3.9 million at auction. You won't find any whining on this blog like you'll find all over Digital Photography Forum that it's not a good photo- I do think it's a nice image, I just don't know what makes this one worth $3.9 million versus everything else that is out there. The principal photography magazines- PDN Online, Popular Photography, British Journal of Photography- hold surprisingly little in that regard. Popular Photography seems too busy trying to hawk items off of Ebay.
Now some would say the sale price does not have any logic, it simply comes out of thin air, but that doesn't make any sense, either. In a climate where Getty values photographers so little that it's willing to dump its library on the market royalty-free, here is a picture that went for nearly $4 million?
Artforum has a blog entry about the sale, but that brief writeup serves mostly to illustrate that they have a serious case of amnesia- they forget to mention that they rejected "Untitled #96", the picture in question, when it was offered for publication (along with the other images in that particular series).
Moving on... Here is some of the technical information from auction house Christie's, which had originally valued the photo at $1.5 to $2 million. It was printed as one in an edition of 10, so I'm not sure where that leaves the price status of the other nine copies (presuming they are still in existence):
Cindy Sherman (B. 1954)
signed, numbered and dated 'Cindy Sherman 10/10 1981' (on a paper label affixed to the reverse)
color coupler print
24 x 48 in. (61 x 121.9 cm.)
Executed in 1981. This work is number ten from an edition of ten.
Sherman adopted the personae of a teenage girl in this large, almost life-size photograph - lying supine on the floor, clutching a page torn from the newspaper classifieds. Who is this girl? Why is she lying on the floor? Is she scheming to find true love, or the brokenhearted victim of a failed love affair? The work exudes shock and confrontation through its scale and the boldness of Sherman's tight compositional framing, yet the figure at the work's center is also endearing and curiously vulnerable. Sherman places these conflicts at her work's very heart, as she questions, not only the medium of photography, but also our wider assumptions about gender and truth in the modern world... The girl in the gingham dress does not meet our gaze but instead looks off into the middle distance, as if distracted by dreams of an unrequited love affair or a romance that is still a figment of her imagination. However her schoolgirl naivety is betrayed by her freshly painted blood red nails, heavily rouged cheeks and bright red lipstick - all signs of burgeoning sexuality, all enhanced by the provocative upturned hem of her skirt...
The buyer named at the auction does not offer us any additional clues about the photo's valuation.- Philippe Ségalot is an art dealer. He himself has previously worked as a dealer at Christies and presumably purchased the photo because he thought others would be willing to pay more for it. So that still begs the question. Who knows, maybe he was looking to pay a record price for a photo and this one just happened to be the one on sale that day? Well, not exactly.
The stage was set for Cindy Sherman's work to gain a new price record by virtue of the fact that another of her photos had sold for $2.8 million last year- a sale engineered by Philippe Ségalot. Flipping Sherman photos seems to be a bit of an occupation of his and I'm sure a lucrative one.
Ken Tanaka had this insight to offer four years ago on The Online Photographer website, when yet another Sherman self-portrait sold for $2.1 million.
Productively diversifying large investable sums is, and always has been, a challenge that's hard for most people to understand unless they're faced with the predicament. Investments in conventional and traditional instruments (stocks, bonds, mutual funds) is fine and relatively safe. But these instruments, over time, produce relatively modest returns and present varying degrees of risk. Art and antiques have, for quite a long time, been considered 'alternative investments.' Private bankers track these asset classes for their clients in much the same way that they track other assets, and they quite often represent their clients at auctions and private sales.
Spending $2+ million for a photograph might seem outlandish and arrogant to many people, regardless of the photographer. But in fact it's simply someone's investment transaction, and one that's almost guaranteed to reap a much more robust return than stocks or mutual funds. Photography actually represents a real ground-floor bargain today when compared to other flat works. In fact, today it's considered a nice beginner's investment in the art world.
So before you automatically denigrate those who participate in such sales you should realize that these are simply investments, and generally damn good ones. You should also realize that the general caricature of the type of people who buy such works is often far off the mark. In fact, increasingly the buyers are coming from Europe and China.
Rich people, tossing their money at something they think other rich people will buy. That's about as far as I can gather. By the way, we'll soon be having auction soon here at Breningstall.com and the starting price is $4 million.