Rhein II – the $4.3m Photo

rhine ii^This is currently the most expensive photograph in the world.  It sold for $4.3m in 2011.  Granted, it is rather large at 73″ by 143″, but it is certainly not worth $4.3 in itself.  I think the question of worth comes up often when talking about art, and the truth is, there really is one answer.  For example, if I had taken this exact photograph (assuming I had the skill to do so exactly), it would certainly not be worth $4.3m.  So how did it manage to sell for that much?  Because what is being sold is not just the artwork, but rather the meaning we attribute to it.  This piece was taken by Andreas Gursky, who has made a name for himself and whose work has been consistently going up in value as time passes.  Therefore, any work by him is worth rather a lot.  His works are well known and included in numerous major museums, including MOMA in New York, Centre Pompidou in Paris, Tate Modern in London.  Next, his work is usually only printed in editions of 6 with two artist proofs.  This means that there are only 6 official copies of this photograph (this particular copy is the largest of the edition) and two ‘test runs’ during which he checked that everything was printing properly.  The less prints there are, the more valuable the individual prints become.  So if I printed an edition of 6, each would be worth more than if I printed an edition of 2,000.

While all that is great and hikes up the price of a photograph a bit… I’m sure I didn’t convince you that it’s worth $4.3m.  So again, why did it sell for this much?  Because it was being sold at the right time in the right place with the right person present :).  That’s it.  Because for one reason or another, there was one person willing to pay $4.3m for this piece and several other people (or even one other person) who helped hike the price up to $4.3m.  So, not only is it being sold at a time that Gursky is well known (if this had been sold even a few decades or even years before, the price might have been drastically different) and therefore the demand for his work is high, but it was also being sold at this particular auction with these particular individuals present.  It only took one person to make this the most expensive photograph in the world.  That certainly does not mean that it is the best photograph in the world, or that it is the most valuable, all it means is that there is someone out there willing to exchange this amount of currency at this point in time to obtain the work.  I’ve always been very interested in how much value we place in objects, whether as a society (for example the value of the paper we use as currency), or individually (that one ticket stub that is meaningless to everyone else but us).  It’s also come into play when I show or sell my art.  I’ve been in numerous shows in which the works are being sold and I am required to present a number for which I would like to sell my work.  While I can calculate the time I spent on it and the cost of the materials for which I created the work, the amount may never match up to the amount for which I am wiling to part ways with the work.  It’s not that I think it is worth much more than it cost to make necessarily, but it is more so the connection I have with that object and the amount I am willing to pass up in order to keep the work.  Likewise, if I am set on selling works, I have to take into consideration the demand for the art I am making and how much I think someone else would possibly value it and therefore pay for it.  So essentially, it becomes a guessing game, because in the end, you really don’t know.  Going into the auction, I don’t think anyone would have been able to guess that Rhein II would be sold that evening for $4.3m.  Luckily, it was an auction, so they didn’t have to guess!  But it’s very fascinating what the right series of events can lead to.  Most of these events, I’d like to argue, are out of our control, so all we can do is put our best efforts forth and hope that all the pieces fall into place :)


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