The Worlds Top 10 Most Expensive Photographs

It doesn’t seem so long ago when I was discussing a picture by Australian landsscape photographer Peter Lik with a group of fellow photographers, that had sold for a million dollars. Having been to Lik’s gallery in Las Vegas and witnessed the crass commercialism first hand, I guess I wasn’t too surprised. But only in America hey? However, something the other day made me want to find out what was so appealing about that picture as to command such an amazing price. During my research I was stunned to find out it’s now not even in the top ten most expensive photographs in the world today. It seems photography is now commanding such astronomical prices. So you think you can’t make a living out of selling photographs .. perhaps it’s time to think again, and prepared to be amazed.

1. Rhein II by Andreas Gursky

The worlds most expensive photograph to date is by Andreas Gursky and entitled Rhein II (1999), which on November 8, 2011, sold for $4,338,500, at Christie’s in New York. Mind blowing, especially seeing how utterly ordinary the picture is.

2. Untitled #96 by Cindy Sherman

Untitled #96 by Cindy Sherman

Untitled #96 by Cindy Sherman, (1981) sold for a staggering $3,890,500 at Christie’s New York in May 2011. A seventh print of Untitled #96 sold for $2.88 million at Christie’s in May 2012. For those of you who don’t know, Cynthia Morris Sherman is an American photographer known for her conceptual portraits, many in which she (like the one above) takes on the role of the model. Her photographs are avant-garde and many involve prosthetics as props. She has works in the Tate Gallery, London as well as many other renowned museums. Her works generally are often untitled are typically issued in a limited run of just 10 prints. Her work has been very much en-vogue since 2000 and as such she remains one of the highest earning photographers.

3. Dead Troops Talk by Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), created in 1992, sold for $3,666,500 on 8th May 2012, at Christie’s New York. This is a rather bizarre, contrived, macabre scene, apparently depicting a group of dead Soviet soldiers talking to each other after being killed in the Soviet-Afghan war in 1986. Not one I’d like on my wall and just what is going on with that top edge?

4. 99 Cent II Diptychon by Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon (2001), $3,346,456, February 2007, Sotheby’s London auction. A second print of 99 Cent II Diptychon sold for $2.48 million in November 2006 at a New York gallery, and a third print sold for $2.25 million at Sotheby’s in May 2006. He certainly must be one of the richest photographers around today.

5. Pond-Moonlight by Edward Steichen

The Pond-Moonlight (1904) by Edward Steichen sold for $2,928,000 at a Sotheby’s New York auction in February 2006, which at the time made it the most expensive ever. Edward Jean Steichen (March 27, 1879 – March 25, 1973) was an American photographer, painter, and art gallery and museum curator. He was also a close acquaintance of Alfred Stieglitz and was instrumental in the publication of publication of Ansel Adams’ image Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico in 1943. Although predating the first autochrome, layers of light-sensitive gums were applied by hand to render a coloured appearance. Three copies are know to exist, each slightly different due to the hand-layering of the gums.

6. Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman

This gruesome image called Untitled #153 (1985), is another from Cindy Sherman which sold for $2,700,000 at Phillips de Pury & Co. New York in November 2010.

7. Billy the Kid by Unnamed Photographer

Billy the Kid, by unknown photographer (circa 1879-1880)

This portrait of wild west legend Billy the Kid by an Unknown photographer, sold for $2,300,000 at Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Auction in June 2011. Experts conclude that this is only genuine, authentic image of Billy the Kid. The picture is a ferrotype and was kept by Billy’s friend Dan Dedrick and passed down in his family. It also sparked the legend that Billy was left handed, but inspection of the belt and buttons reveal it to be a mirror image and he wore his gun holster on the right.

8. Tobolsk Kremlin by Dmitry Medvedev

The Kremlin of Tobolsk by Dmitry Medvedev (2010)

A black and white picture of the Tobolsk Kremlin (2009) by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev sold for for 51 million rubles ($1.750,000) at a charity auction at Yamarka in Saint Petersburg in January 2010. Medvedev, who is an avid photographer, took the photograph from the air of one the final homes of Russia’s last czar and his family during the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It was bought by an associate of Medvedevs former Law firm.

9. Nude by Edward Weston


Edward Weston, $1,609,000, April 2008, Sotheby‘s New York auction.

10. Georgia O’Keeffe (Hands) by Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe (Hands)(1919), $1,470,000, February 2006, Sotheby’s New York auction.


I thought I’d wrap up by presenting my view on these works. It’s clearly apparent to me, that most of these photographs have commanded high prices based very little on photographic or artistic merit, but rather on photographers notoriety, current collectability and speculation, and that to me seems a great shame. The exception for me is the nude by Weston. I would have expected to see an Ansel Adams in this list, but even his most famous photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1948), has now been demoted to number 14. Most of the above I probably wouldn’t hang on my wall and sadly the world of photographic art seems now rather obsessed with ‘collectable’ conceptual ‘Art’ rather than great photography. The hi-end photographic market now seems to be more akin to the embarrassingly dreadful Turner prize dished out yearly to so-called artists here in the UK, where the more bizarre and abstract the entry, the more the judges seem to like it. One never knows just what collection of tat is going to be awarded the next title.

You can tell by my tone I’m definitely not a fan of the likes of Damien Husrt or Tracy Emin, who seem more like con-artists that artists to me. It’s certainly made them very rich. More fool the buyers. Like-wise the photographs of Gursky and Sherman above where I find little to enthral and to be honest you can see better on Flickr every week. But don’t get me wrong however, I do admire the classics works of the great photographers and the pioneers of photography. Give me an Ansel or Weston any day.

Oh, and if you’re still wondering what that Peter Lik photograph looks like that started all this, here it is below. Nice, but then I’d rather have a million dollars.

One by Peter Lik


Copyright for the images used within this article are probably owned by either the original artist, the person or body who commissioned the work, or the heirs thereof. The author has used only low-resolution images of these works for illustrative and commentary purposes as stated as ‘fair use’ under United States copyright law and no infringement of any original copyright is intended or implied.



  • buckeye

    To John,

    I could not have said it better. THANK YOU!

    February 7, 2013
  • Fyord

    Man, how about you deal with these artists and figure out why they are so renowed. Gursky’s images for instance are everything but ordinary. He comes from the Düsseldorfer Schule under Bernd and Hilla Becher who taught a new simple documentary style of photography. He then evolved his work by introducing digital retouching already in the beginning of the ninetees. That Rhine image for instance is a composite of dozens of images so that every wave every line is at its place to seem ordinary. The fact is that such an ordinary place doesn’t exist anymore in our manmade enviroment. Educate yourself before you rant about things you don’t understand.

    October 23, 2012
    • I’m hardly ranting, merely expressing my opinion, and of course have researched other works by the so-called ‘artists’ above. To be honest I find Rhein II immensely dull. It offers very little photographically, artistically or of any originality to me. 99 Cent II Diptychon is far more interesting photographically but is hardly ground-breaking. I’ve discussed Rhein II with many photographers, all of whom express surprise and some disappointment at this being the worlds most expensive photograph. Of the above I find only the Weston has that touch of class, although I can appreciate the historical and artistic significant of the Stieglitz, Steichen and the picture of Billy the Kid. Whilst photographers like Weston, Stieglitz, Adams, Cartier-Bresson, and such, have undoubtedly earned their place in photographic history with their vision, influence and talent, I would be saddened and disheartened if works like Rhein II is to be revered in 50 years time, when there is far better around. However, the mere fact someone has paid so much this particular image probably guarantees it’s notoriety, so sadly I may be proved wrong.

      October 23, 2012

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