Understanding the Market

Collecting Photography

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 typically 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. Because all prints have been previously owned, the level of care and subsequent current condition is inconsistent, and is a significant factor in pricing. For more information on condition, see our Print Conditions Definitions.

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 impacts price, or the relative degree to which 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 in 2006. The current (2018-2020) price for a late print in very good to excellent condition is $55-65,000. 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.

Market Participants

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

Auction Houses

Major auction houses (Christie’s, Phillips, Sotheby’s) hold sales in New York City twice per year, April and October. Smaller auction houses (Bonham’s, Heritage, Swann’s) also tend to hold sales two or three times a year, generally around 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” or “that’s not what I thought it was.” Caveat emptor – Buyer Beware.

We have 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.

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 your winning bid is $20,000, you aren’t picking it up until you pay the house $25,000.

If you are selling at auction, there is a possibility of getting a run up on your piece, which is always great. This is the biggest advantage the auction houses have, the upside potential. It is, however, uncommon. The downside risk of auctions is that if there is a down market or aggressive estimate and reserve, the work may not sell. If it is a piece that will be recognizable in the private markets, a rare early work or mural, the low estimate of an unsold lot can set a price ceiling in the future.


[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 price gouging, or even giving 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 that is 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 additional 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.

Benefits to selling through The Ansel Adams Gallery:

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 higher than the 10-12% the auction houses quote. As mentioned above, the buyer pays a “buyer premium” above the hammer. This amount goes entirely to the auction house, plus the house will take a 10-12% 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 quotes a seller gets from auction houses are based on the hammer price, not the total buyer cost.

  • We are timely in paying our consignors.
  • Sellers know and can set the minimum 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 world.
  • 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, learn more about Selling and Consigning with The Ansel Adams Gallery

Online Auctions

Auctions online have been developing, and in the age of COVID, becoming more and more utilized, with even the major auction houses going almost completely online. Historically, the prices have been weaker than live auctions, and that still seems to be the case. Some galleries are conducting online auctions, but rarely with their premier pieces.

This is conjecture, but some of the problems with online auctions are age-old:

  • Is the seller accurately representing the item? With established sellers, they are unlikely to be fakes or misrepresentations, but we have seen some things on eBay that purport to be Adams or Adams originals when they are not.
  • Is the seller accurately disclosing the condition? Damage can take the value all the way down to zero, if significant enough. See discussion on condition. There are no industry standards for definitions of conditions, and therefore no accountability.
  • Is there an opportunity to return the item if it is not as described? With most auctions, including major auction houses, the operative words are “caveat emptor” – buyer beware.
  • Is there a satisfactory recourse if it becomes necessary?

For the buyer, there is an opportunity to get a good deal, but you may end up “getting what you pay for”. For the seller, sometimes you have to wonder why?

Last Updated on November 19, 2021