Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Prints Have No Value!

Catchy title, huh?

I was poking around recently trying to find out if there was any kind of secondary market for some chappie's prints, and wound up searching more widely, chasing down a new train of thought. Here's something interesting.

There basically is no secondary market for photographic prints.

What this means is that when you purchase a print from, let's pick some neutral party, say Ctein, the value of that print drops instantly to zero dollars. In the rather strict sense that you cannot sell the thing for money. Perhaps $0 is a bit much, but you're very very unlikely to be able to sell it for anything like what you paid for it.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't buy them. There's lots of reasons to buy Art, and investing is surely the least of them. Buying Art with an expectation or even a hope of selling it for more is a fool's game at the best of times.

There are a couple of takeaways here. When some joker goes on about how his photographs are "held in the collections of blah blah blah" what he means is that he sold some prints to some guys. He's trying to give the impression that he's basically Vermeer, but for photos. He's not.

The reasons to buy photographic prints are many. Probably you like the picture, that's great! Probably you like the photographer as well, and want to give him some money, that's also great! Incidentally that's part of why there's no secondary market -- why would I buy your Ctein print for $200? I would actually rather spend $400 and give that money to the artist, because I think Ctein's pretty OK, and also there's that thrill of direct connection. (insert appropriate numbers to suit, of course) This is perfectly reasonable and a fine idea.

Finally, don't expect to become an Important Artist as a photographer. You may well sell a few prints, or even a whole bunch of prints. Those prints will go up on people's walls, and some time in the future, into the trash. Your prints will, almost certainly, not be passed down generation to generation, and they almost certainly will not be re-sold to other collectors.

Books, interestingly, do much better in the secondary market.


  1. As tough as selling prints is, giving them away isn't necessarily any easier!

  2. This is a very odd position to take, given the runaway market at auction in collectible photographic prints. It's rather like saying "there is no secondary market in oil paintings" because your uncle's dog portraits have no value. Sure, Ctein's prints have no secondary value, and neither do mine, but we are not significant figures in contemporary photography.

    Check out the prices for contemporary photographs at Bonham's, Sotheby's, etc.! No secondary market? Really? Whether photographic prints (esp. colour prints) *ought* to be fetching such inflated prices is another question, of course.


    1. Of course I am being a *bit* facetious. I'm not utterly ignorant!

      There are a few points to be made here if we want to get all factual and so on.

      - the secondary market for photographic art is, apparently, quite small in dollars (like pounds, but smaller!) relative to the secondary Art market as a whole.

      - the people who actually enjoy a secondary market are, in the first place, an extremely small minority of the people who style themselves Successful Fine Art Photographers), and I think that all up there really are not that many of them?

      - these few are largely dismissed by the mass of photographers.

      - there's probably some point that could be made to the effect that many contemporary photographers are actually multi-media artists.

      - finally there's the whole weird market for Olde Photoes, frequently Photographer-Unknown which seems to be its own thing, and but is arguably a large and vibrant secondary market?

      The point is that there is a huge disconnect between what we see Out There as the Fine Art photographers, and who they actually are.

      I lump photographers up in to "has gallery representation" and "does not" and the latter, which is practically everyone, generally have no secondary market. I suspect that is in part because nobody trusts them not to simply keep printing endlessly, dutifully marking each print 4/10 on the bottom, without the Gallery watching over their shoulder.

      It's Peter Liks all the way down, until you get to Sally Mann and Cindy Sherman and so on, and then it's something real.

    2. Of course, put that way, it's inarguable... Self-styled "fine art photography" is no such thing, obviously, and anyone thinking they are buying an investment by buying some garish landscape -- look how SHARP it is! -- is getting what they deserve!

      Mind you, you're right about the books. Anyone looking for a good return on a couple of hundred pounds/dollars could do worse than invest it in a few short-run monographs by some up-and-coming names... Knowing who they are is the trick, of course.