Photography as an Alternative Form of Investment | IEABC (Art)icle Series


By: Martin Nuñez Molina

Against the odds of contemporary economic developments, photography has displayed stable returns for the past couple of decades. This wonder of the fine arts emerged as a collectible art form in the late 1970s early 1980s. Although this figure has accompanied various practices dating back to the 1920s, associating itself with figures such as Man Ray and Brâncuși, representing an essential element of their creative processes, riding the wave of photojournalism to the 1960s, developing in parallel to fashion photography, its purpose was of many domains yet not that of being displayed on a wall. As society has developed by the hand of technology so has the character of this form. The exorbitant amount of images we now digest in a matter of seconds has generated a new-found comfort and familiarity in photography. In this manner, it no longer lags behind paintings and sculptures, but in essence, resonates in greater proportion to contemporary visual identity.

Over the past 40 years, photography has been identified as a prime contributor to the art historical narrative. With this newfound character, top secondary market players such as Phillips, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams have developed dedicated markets for the sole purpose of this medium, representing five to six-figure sales by notables such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, and Cindy Sherman among several relevant figures of the medium. As Roman Krussel, niche specialist in alternative forms of investments at the University of Luxembourg remarked, “Benchmarked against other asset classes, photography remains a wise investment.” Observed below, in a study conducted by Kraussl, we observe photography as an optimal vehicle of investment, generating average returns above both real estate and the S&P 500 Index in 16 years.


What must be kept in mind concerning the appeal of this industry is its characteristic accessibility. Although high-end works tend to be captivating of media outlets, nearly 50% of images sold at auctions represent less than $50,000. Like a number of artists debut into the market, collectors seeking minimum downside risk regarding quality and authenticity find a safe haven in this medium. Emily Bierman, head of the photography division at Sotheby’s remarked, “The beauty of photography is not just its broad appeal, but the fact that you can buy a masterpiece in a way that you can no longer buy a painting, making it a perfect getaway category for serious collecting.” Although the photography market is not yet as high-risk, high-reward as the contemporary art market, understanding its market trends can be a fruitful bet on the long term profitability of it as an alternative form of investment.

Artnet’s price database dating to 2009 displays a 10-year total sales value of photography lots observed below. This past year presented a rebound of sales amounting to $22.4 million in comparison to $15.6 million in 2018. Although this may seem encouraging, one must bear in mind the market has not yet been able to pick up its decade high of $30.5 million in 2013, neither the characteristic sales ceiling at $23 million as the trend displayed in three other points in the past decade. This tendency remarks value stability, exemplifying the average work getting neither cheaper nor pricier as Tim Schneider, Art Business editor at Artnet News comments. What can be extrapolated from this is a proper investment rationale that this market serves long-term appreciation.


Blue Chip photographers also display an interesting outlook into the market’s dynamics. Blue Chip art refers to any art that has a sense of reliability to increase economic value regardless of the general economic conditions. A 10-year research on the overall market trends conducted by Schneider highlighted 17 photographers who display a track record in the top 10 best-selling figures of the medium. Even more, among this narrow group, only five artists tested their timelessness by topping six years or more in this list, including Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, and Robert Mapplethorpe. This analysis must not be taken as a source of discouragement to the average investor, yet as an indicator of the relative stability of certain names in the industry.

Finally, observable in Schneider’s analysis is the characteristic gender disparity of the medium. This characteristic is not unique to the photography market, yet the overall art scene. In the UBS and Art Basel Art Market Report of 2019, it was disclosed that for blue-chip galleries, women’s artworks displayed a median listing price 27% below their male counterpart. Specifically displaying a $300 difference in the average piece per gender respectively, in the photography niche. Although this section of the overall art market does not display the greatest disparity among others, as is the case with sculptures or installations, it does convey an interesting point. Remarkable evidence of such disparity is the fact that out of 32 artists topping the 10 best selling photographers over the past decade, only seven were women, and only two of these made the list more than once. Yet, a possible encouraging thought is that in 2019, three different women photographers topped the list of sales leaders, possibly carrying momentum over the horizon.

Over the past couple of decades, there has been an exponential change in society’s trends. As per usual in history, means of living are characterized by reforms both in customs and perspectives. Ideals that were once cornerstones of everyday life evolve, ever so with the great power technology conveys on a global scale. The possibility to contemplate the arts is no longer the privilege of the wealthy, yet accessible to all through the great number of institutions that have been established over the past decades. It is dedicated to the conservation of historical narratives through visual means, and the overreaching power of the digitization movement, habilitating tremendous amounts of information in a matter of seconds. Understanding the changing character of our times as well as the driving forces to these changes must convey great security in newfound forms of value. Although not yet developed to their full extent, if leveraged in a timely manner and properly understood, great value can be extracted from these. Photography as many other emerging gems of contemporary society serves as a prime vehicle of alternative investments, not only granting its modern-day patron fantastic financial returns but a crucial character in furthering the humanities disciplines in an accelerated society.

Editorial Note: This article was previously published in the LinkedIn page of the IE Arts and Business Club (link). The information and images were taken from the following sources: Hiscox, RobbReport, ArtNet News, Isuu, and The Upsider. The featured image comes from Eleven – Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

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