Understanding the Market

There are multiple sources of photographic art, falling into one of two general categories – primary and secondary markets. There will be some cross over, but you get the picture.

Primary markets are by definition the point of the first acquisition of a work of art. They are generally the sources of work by living, active photographers. Primary market players are galleries, and at times the artist themselves. In primary markets, prices are established by the artist as a condition of representation. All galleries who work with a contemporary photographer should be selling at the same price. Pretty straightforward.

Secondary markets are by definition involved in the acquisition and sale of work that has been owned previously. Secondary markets are generally only developed for work by deceased or inactive artists, although there are exceptions. Key players in secondary markets are auction houses, private dealers, and some galleries. On the secondary market, price is determined by a host of factors, described below.

A quick distinction – a private dealer is generally an individual without a display space regularly open to the public. They work by telephone, appointment, and most often with established clients.

Buying and Selling on the Secondary Market


Prices on the secondary market can be pretty confusing: the internet is bringing more visibility, but because there are a lot of different factors that aren’t readily captured or noted, the internet is not bringing greater clarity. The key to remember is that while not all prints are the same, there are common factors that sellers use to establish the price. Those are: general market and economic conditions, image desirability and demand, image scarcity and supply, size, condition, period of printing, provenance, and image quality. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules to how each factor, and the degree of each factor is weighted.

So for example, a 16×20” photograph of Moonrise, Hernandez can vary between $0.00 and $600,000. The latter price was achieved at auction for a 1948 print with a clear and documented provenance in excellent condition during the recent run up to the top of the market. The current (2015-2017) price for a late print in very good to excellent condition is $45-55,000. We have also seen a 16×20” print of Moonrise that looked like it had been a pinup in a machine shop, with heavy oil stains on the mount, smudges and scratches on the surface, that basically had zero value on the market.

Market Participants

There are advantages and disadvantages to working with each market player type.

Auction Houses

Major auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips dePury) hold sales in New York City twice per year, April and October. Smaller auction houses (Bonham’s, Swann’s) also tend to hold sales twice a year, sometimes at the same time.

Auctions are public events, can be entertaining and exciting for bidders, and present a great opportunity to view and bid on multiple works of art at the same time. It is sometimes possible to get a good deal. We have also seen some pretty outrageous prices, so you have to exercise caution when bidding. All sales are “as is” and final. There is no way to say “I didn’t mean that” or “I didn’t see that damage”. Caveat emptor.

One thing that some people are not aware of in bidding is that the hammer price is not the final price. At most auction houses, there is a buyer premium of 25%, which means if you bid $20,000 for a photograph, you aren’t picking it up until you pay the house $25,000.

We have also seen a very large and very discolored reproduction of Moonrise go for over $20,000 at auction. It was listed as a “collotype”, which is technically accurate, but most people would call it an oversized poster. You have to know what you are buying.

If you are selling at auction, there is a possibility of getting a run up on your piece, which is always great. Presuming the market is OK and the reserve price is not too high, you will get paid within 30-60 days of the sale. It is worthwhile to note that sometimes, particularly in a down market or an overly aggressive estimate and reserve, the item may not sell.


[The following comments refer to The Ansel Adams Gallery specifically; they may or may not be relevant to other galleries.]

Galleries are also great places to buy and sell works. Galleries offer a level of customer service that is not available at auctions. We want to work with clients for a long time, and the quickest way to ruin that opportunity is dishonesty or gouging, or even give the appearance of that. We are the middleman between buyers and sellers, so our customers are both sides. We need to offer a good price to the seller in order to get the work, and a good price to the buyer to sell the work and keep the client. That is why our prices are fixed, we think at a market level fair for both parties. We don’t negotiate, which means the price any one client pays is the price any other client would pay.

Some of the benefits of buying at The Ansel Adams Gallery:

  • We inspect and point out any condition anomalies, which are factored into the price. The vast majority of our prints are at a condition level of “Very Good” or better, we avoid selling visibly damaged pieces because the eye will always go to that point once it is seen.
  • We provide a Certificate of Authenticity, guaranteeing its authenticity as described.
  • We offer layaway terms, where a collector can pay over a 4 month period without interest.
  • Our return policy allows for in-home decision making, giving refunds for returns without damage within 10 days of delivery (less shipping).
  • We’ve been in business for over 100 years and have an excellent reputation. We are interested in long-term relationships with clients.

We acquire original works through either consignment or purchase. With consignments, we can offer a better return to the seller than an outright purchase from the Gallery. The down side of that is sometimes a sale can take some time.

One question we get is why our consignment commission is so much higher than the 10% the auction houses quote. As mentioned above, the buyer pays a premium above the hammer. This amount goes entirely to the auction house, plus the house will take a 10% commission off the hammer price as the “seller premium”, meaning that the auction house is getting about 28-30% of what the buyer pays. The house quotes are based on the hammer price, not the total buyer cost.

The benefits to selling through the gallery:

  • We are timely paying our consignors.
  • Sellers know and can set the minimum (which is also the maximum) amount they will receive.
  • Seller’s work is insured by us while under our control.
  • We are one of the premier dealers, if not the premier dealer, in Ansel Adams’ work in the US.
  • We have an established client base of enthusiastic Ansel Adams collectors.
  • We’ve been in business for over 100 years, and are not going to sacrifice our reputation for a quick sale.

For an explanation of the process, click here.

Online Auctions  

Online auctions are a relatively new phenomenon. We’ve seen some Adams pieces come up online, and have the following concerns and comments:

  • Is the seller accurately representing the item? There are lots of different types of reproductions of Ansel’s work, people may, wittingly or unwittingly, misrepresent the item. We have also seen some complete fakes of people representing any old nature picture as Ansel’s.
  • Is the seller accurately disclosing the condition? Damage can take the value all the way down to zero, if significant enough.
  • Is there an opportunity to return the item if not as described?
  • Is there a satisfactory recourse if it becomes necessary?
  • In our opinion, buyers are taking a chance buying original Adams prints from an online or independent seller. If the buyer recognizes that and is willing to take that chance, then it might be worth it.