Are you curious about the world of photography and the potential profits it can bring?
Look no further than this guide to the 16 most expensive photographs ever sold.
Each photograph is accompanied by details about the image and the photographer, as well as the historical and social context of the artwork.
By the end of this article, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of what makes a photograph timeless and worth millions of dollars.
Other inspirational articles about photos:
Table of Contents
The Most Expensive Photographs Ever Sold
Whether you’re looking for inspiration or here out of curiosity, you’ve come to the right place! \
You’ll find that here in this list of the most highly esteemed photographs in the world.
Here’s a list of 16 timeless art pieces that stood the test of time.
1. Le Violon D’Ingre (1924) by Man Ray
As of 2022, Le Violon D’Ingre is the most expensive photograph in the world. It’s a recognized piece of art by Man Ray taken in 1924. It depicts the back of a beautiful nude woman with a violin’s F-shaped sound opening on both sides.
With such surrealistic features, this photograph immediately became an embodiment of Surrealism. Man Ray initially took this black and white photo featuring his partner and muse Alice Prin, also known as Kiki de Montparnasse.
Later, he incorporated the F-shaped sound openings on her back to show the resemblance between a perfect woman’s body and the sleek musical instrument.
The photo was inspired by The Valpinçon Bather painted by the French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1808, hence the name.
Le Violin D’Ingre was auctioned at Christie’s New York as the most valuable item in the collection of the American collectors Melvin Jacobs and Rosalind Gersten Jacobs, who bought it directly from Man Ray in 1962.
Its price was initially estimated between $5,000,000 and 7,000,000. However, it exceeded all expectations to set a new world record, as it sold for $12,412,000 in May 2022.
2. The Flatiron Building (1904) by Edward Steichen
The photograph was inspired by another one taken the previous year for the same building by Steichen’s friend and mentor, Alfred Stieglitz.
Steichen took the photograph from the western side of Madison Square Park. He made three distinct copies. Interestingly, each one of them comes in a unique hue setting it apart from the others, which adds to the rarity of the piece.
This iconic photograph was among 150 items in the auction belonging to the late Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder. Meanwhile, the two other originals are part of the art collection at the Metropolitan Museum.
The main influence on this picture comes from painting. Steichen, who practiced painting in Paris between 1900 and 1922, intended the photo to look like a painting rather than a still image.
Over a century later, and precisely in November 2022, Steichen’s photograph of the Flatiron Building was sold for $11,840,000 in an auction at Christie’s New York. It surpassed expectations, as it was estimated to sell between $2,000,000 and $3,000,000.
3. The Phantom (1999) by Peter Lik
Peter Lik is a contemporary Australian photographer who finds inspiration in mother nature. He prefers capturing the natural beauty of the American southwest, where he’s drawn to Arizona’s Antelope Canyon.
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Phantom is a monochromatic version of Ghost, another photo taken by Lik in the Antelope Canyon in the late 90s. It depicts a penetrating beam of sunlight through the cavities of the canyon, forming a ghost-like figure. In 2008, Ghost was sold for $15,860.
In 2014 at one of his galleries, Lik sold his Phantom for a whopping $6,500,000, making it the most expensive photograph in the world for years.
That world record was only broken in 2022 by Le Violon D’Ingre and the Flatiron Building. Now, Phantom is the third most expensive artwork ever sold.
The buyer of this artwork preferred to remain anonymous. He also bought Lik’s Illusion for $2,400,000 and Eternal Moods for $1,100,000
Unfortunately, this sale has evoked a heated skepticism. According to Forbes, despite the beauty of the photo, the price is unrealistic.
The only reason behind this high price is that the buyer is a long-time collector of Peter Lik’s photos who has fallen in love with the image.
That raises some debate around the validity of the sale. The skepticism is due to the anonymity of the buyer, which makes it hard to validate the sale. In addition, there’s a steep price jump from $15,860 for the colored version of the photo.
4. Rhein II (1999) by Andreas Gursky
Andreas Gursky is a German photographer who likes to capture the essence of culture and the business of everyday life. He’s well-known for other highly-priced photos, such as the 99 Cent II Diptychon and Chicago Board of Trade II.
In 1999, he captured a segment of the Rhein River right out of his hometown in Germany. Later, he manipulated the image digitally to produce such a serene landscape that isn’t entirely existent.
He removed all signs of modernity and industrialism to form Rhein II, a shot of a platonic horizon that takes up half of the photo. Meanwhile, the bottom half of the image is divided into two equal sections: the river and a flat grass bed.
The artist’s inspiration came from the high contrast between the serenity of nature and the business of the industrial world. He wanted to capture the essence of human interaction with nature in a profound work of art.
That’s where he thought about removing the human impact from the photo to highlight the contrast, demonstrating our relationship with nature. That gave the photograph its high cultural significance.
In addition, the fact that there are only six prints of this photo makes it a collectible item. Three versions are displayed in the public museums Moma, Tate, and the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. One is held in the Glenstone Private Museum in Potomac, USA, which leaves only two for private collectors.
In November 2011, the Rhein II was sold at Christie’s New York for a record $4,338,500, exceeding its initially estimated value of 2,500,000 to 3,500,000.
5. Spiritual America (1983) by Richard Prince
Spiritual America is a controversial photograph that is part of Richard Prince’s rephotography project, the Cowboy Series, undertaken between 1980 and 1992.
Through his project, the American photographer Richard Prince rephotographed images from popular culture and used a combination of artistic processes to create his unique versions of these photos. This project has raised questions about originality and art ownership.
This photo features a nude ten-year-old Brooke Shields emerging from a steamy bathtub. The photo was originally taken by Brooke’s mother in the 70s to be posted in an adult magazine. It was the mother’s attempt to boost her daughter’s career early on.
Not only did the photo raise criticism for its ownership but also its depiction of child nudity. Eventually, the photo was permanently taken down from Tate Modern’s exhibition by the police.
Later, in May 2014, Spiritual America was sold in an auction at Christie’s New York for $3,973,000. That price falls right within the $3,500,000 to $4,500,000 price range estimated initially.
6. Untitled #96 (1981) by Cindy Sherman
You may think of this one as the most expensive selfie in history!
Cindy Sherman is a revolutionary artist who literally depicts herself in her photographs. She aims to make people recognize things about themselves through her images.
The photo is a self-portrait of the artist at the age of 27. She’s lying on the floor dressed in an orange sweater and a plaid skirt of orange and white. This color concentration gives the photo a general orange hue.
In the photo, the artist is gazing at the camera with a torn newspaper scrap in her hand. The look on her face shows that she’s lonely or deeply bothered.
Sherman originally took the photo in 1981 to be published in the magazine Artforum. Interestingly, the magazine never published it.
Other prints of this photograph are publicly displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
7. Untitled #93 (1981) by Cindy Sherman
Here’s another masterpiece by the American photographer Cindy Sherman. The photo Untitled #93 depicts a young blonde woman sleeping on a bed. She’s covered up until her neck while clutching the covers with both hands.
There is a striking contrast between the white woman in the white nightgown and all the black surroundings. From the look on the woman’s face and the way she holds the covers as if trying to cover her shame, some critics believe that the photo is about women’s abuse.
The photo comes as part of the untitled collection by Cindy Sherman, where she depicts women in private moments. Here appears the genius of the artist who leaves the photos untitled for a reason. It’s up to every viewer’s imagination to decipher them in any way they want.
The iconic photograph was sold in 2014 in an auction at Sotheby’s New York for $3,861,000. It was initially valued between $2,000,000 and $3,000,000. However, the closing bid surpassed expectations.
8. Twin Flames #49 NFT (2021) by Justin Aversano
Twin Flames #49 is part of Justin Aversano’s photography collection entitled Twin Flames. In this collection, he photographed 100 sets of twins.
Justin Aversano is an American humanist and NFT artist who believes in the healing power of art. He’s the co-founder of Save Art Space, a non-profit organization aiming at empowering artists by putting culture above commercialism.
The #49 in the Twin Flames collection carries a special significance to Justin Aversano. Presumably, it depicts Alyson and Courtney Aliano.
However, you only see Alyson Aliano looking into her bedroom mirror, lamenting the loss of her deceased twin sister, Courtney. It’s as if Alyson’s image in the mirror is, in fact, her sister’s.
Interestingly, this photo was sold as an NFT in an unconventional party bid auction in 2022. It was sold for 871 ETH; that’s around $3,781,159. About 850 ETH were dedicated to the Raw Doa Treasury to support starting artists.
9. To Her Majesty (1973) by Gilbert and George
Gilbert and George are an interesting pair. They refer to themselves as two people but one artist. Gilbert Proech was born in Italy in 1943, while George Passmore was born in England in 1942.
The two artists met in 1967 while studying sculpting at St. Martin’s Art School in London. That’s where they discovered the power of photography and started their artistic union.
To Her Majesty is one of their masterpieces of 37 pieces. It’s a part of their Drinking Sculptures Project. This project is made of 114 photographs taken in the 70s at Balls Brothers Wine Bar in London.
These photos were deliberately blurred, fragmented, and distorted to reflect the experience of a drunk person.
The photograph was sold in June 2008 at Christie’s London for GBP 1,889,250, which was about $3,767,950 at the time. That amount is more than double its initial estimated price of GBP 400,000 – GBP 600,000.
10. Untitled Cowboy (1998) by Richard Prince
Richard Prince began publishing his Cowboy collection in the 1980s. He aimed to rephotograph images from American popular culture.
In this collection, he featured the Marlboro man in his cowboy outfit. The untitled cowboy photo depicts the cowboy with his stetson hat, leather chaps, and boots, trying to calm a raging black horse.
Although Richard manipulates the images, his work here doesn’t entail much. He simply removes the commercial text and expands the image a little. That way, he manages to highlight the image of the cowboy as an emblem of American culture.
In May 2012, this untitled image was sold at an auction at Christie’s New York. It sold for $3,749,000, which falls right within the range initially estimated between $3,000,000 to $4,000,000.
11. Dead Troops Talk (1992) by Jeff Wall
Jeff Wall is a Canadian photographer born in 1946. He combines talent with education, as he has a doctorate in Art History from London. That’s where he worked closely with the giants of European art cinema.
Jeff Wall is an innovative artist whose special technique produces what looks like documentary photographs. In other words, his photographs are usually staged like a scene from a movie set. That appears in his Dead Troops Talk (1992).
This photograph is a portrayal of a war scene from Afghanistan. It depicts the attacks of Mujahideen on a soviet patrol from the Red Army. It’s heavily staged with models and lights to resemble a painting of a war scene.
This image evokes sentiments of death, futility, and pain. All the soviet soldiers in the picture look either dead or dying. On the other hand, hints of the attackers appear at the back of the photo; they’re still standing in the background after causing all such agony.
This emotionally loaded art piece made it to the list of the most expensive photographs in May 2012. It sold for $3,666,500 in Christie’s New York. It was initially estimated to sell somewhere between $1,500,000 and $2,000,000.
12. Untitled Cowboy (2000) by Richard Prince
This untitled photograph is another one from Richard Prince’s Cowboy series, featuring the Marlboro man as a symbol of American pop culture.
Like the rest of the collection, this photo is a manipulation of the original photograph taken for commercial purposes. Richard Prince removes all text and highlights certain aspects of the photo.
The untitled cowboy photograph combines several images of cowboys in different positions between trees.
The shadow-like trees contrast the yellowish land and purple horizon to highlight the poses taken by the American Marlboro man. This contrast and the soft colors of the sunset evoke a serene and relaxing state.
The photo was sold at an auction in Christie’s New York for $3,525,000, just a little over the estimated price of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000.
13. Untitled Cowboy (2001-2002) by Richard Prince
That’s another one of Richard Prince’s pictures of the Marlboro man. This untitled cowboy photograph features the silhouette of the Marlboro man sitting on a fence in his cowboy outfit with their boots and hat.
The background features several shades of orange and yellow to depict a perfect sunset. These orange hues create a striking contrast with the grey silhouette of the cowboy.
The image was sold in an auction at Sotheby’s New York for $3,401,000. That price smashes all expectations, as it comes way higher than the estimated price of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000.
14. 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001) by Andreas Gursky
This is a recent photograph by the German photographer Andreas Gursky. It’s typical of his style that turns mundane everyday images of realistic businesses into great art.
99 Cents II Diptychon is an exceptionally large photograph, measuring over 11 feet wide and 6.5 feet tall. Ironically, this $3,000,000+ photo features the stacks of merchandise in a 99 Cents store in Los Angeles.
Typical of his technique, Gursky digitally manipulated the image to highlight certain aspects. For instance, he manipulated the colors to show an explosion of yellow, red, and orange with hints of blue, black, white, and pink.
In addition, Gursky added a reflection of the merchandise stacks on the ceiling to highlight that we live in a consumer society.
In February 2007, this photograph was sold in an auction at Sotheby’s London. It was first estimated to sell for a price between GBP 900,000 and GBP 1,200,000, which translated into $1,800,000 to $2,400,000 at the time.
Exceeding all expectations, Gursky’s photograph eventually sold for about $3,346,456. That puts another one of Andreas Gursky’s works on the list of the most expensive photographs.
15. Chicago Board of Trade II (1999) by Andreas Gursky
Another hit by Andreas Gursky finds its way to the list of the most expensive photographs ever sold. Taken in 1999, the Chicago Board of Trade II is the second of six images of the Chicago Board of Trade made by Gursky between 1999 and 2009.
It features the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade as seen from a high vantage point. The image is bustling with life, reflecting the business of the trading floor during working hours.
The blurred sections of the photo emphasize the idea that the brokers are constantly moving. In addition, the image has a frame-like border of people hunched over desks with telephones and monitors.
As usual, Gursky manipulated the colors of this photo to create a mosaic-like effect with vibrant hues to highlight the busy activities of this business. This photo, along with others by Gursky, has revolutionized photography.
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The Chicago Board of Trade II has two copies; one is displayed in Tate, while the second was sold for about $3,298,755. The sale took place in an auction at Sotheby’s London in June 2013. It was first estimated to sell for a price between GBP 600,000 and GBP 800,000. That’s around $960,000 to $1,280,000, which is almost half of the actual price.
15. Noir et Blanche (1926) by Man Ray
Man Ray hits again with another masterpiece on the list of the most expensive photos of all time. Noir et Blanche is a highly contrastive monochromatic photograph, hence the name.
It features Kiki de Montparnasse, Man Ray’s partner and muse. She rests her face on a table and holds a black tribal mask, which contrasts Kiki’s pale face.
Noir et Blanche is strongly influenced by Le Muse Endormie, a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi. That shows through several aspects, such as Kiki’s hairdo, head position, and makeup, as well as the shape and features of the tribal mask.
The photo shows the artist’s clear interest in African art. It was first published in Vogue Paris in 1926. Since then, it has been considered an embodiment of surrealism.
The beautiful photograph has captured the attention of the fashion icon Jacque Doucet, who acquired the original photograph from the artist himself. In November 2017, this photograph was sold in an auction at Christie’s Paris for about $3,131,533. This final price was more than double the initial estimated price between €1,000,000 and €1,500,000.
Factors Contributing to High Valuation
Now, you’re probably wondering what determines the value of photographs. What contributes to the high valuation, thus high price, of photographs?
For starters, you should understand the science of art valuation to determine the value of an artwork, including photography at auctions.
Here are some contributing factors that increase the value of photographs:
The artist’s reputation makes a world of difference. What’s the photographer known for? Are all their photos authentic? For instance, if the artist has sold an expensive piece, the value of their next piece is likely to soar.
The Condition of the Artwork
Obviously, a photograph in good condition is always favored. Any restoration attempts may decrease the value of an artwork.
The Photograph’s Cultural and Historical Significance
If you trace the world’s most significant art pieces, you’ll see how the subject matter makes a difference. If the photograph represents a certain period or cultural aspect, it’s more likely to be highly valuable.
The Photo’s Provenance
That refers to the line of ownership. In other words, who has owned the piece since its release? A traceable ownership proof proves the authenticity of the piece, thus increasing its value.
The Piece’s Rarity
Art collectors only seek rare pieces. After all, it’s not a collectible item if it’s not one-of-a-kind.
One of the very first questions to ask is, “How many copies have been printed of the photograph?”
Unique or limited edition artwork usually has a high value.
Awards and Recognition
Any award or recognition received by the photograph or the photographer increases the value of art. Collectors always look for highly recognizable pieces.
As a rule of thumb, only worthy artwork will be displayed in privileged museums and exhibitions. Therefore, photographs exhibited in reputable museums and art galleries are more valuable than others.