This Q&A with Philippe Garner, Christie's expert in photography, also appears in the September "Landmark" magazine. (Photo: "Glass Tears" by Man Ray. Article copyright: Hongkong Land.)
Sometimes (rarely in Hong Kong), you get a subject so eloquent, concise and witty that even a brief "phoner" interview is a pleasure. Philippe spoke to me from London.
Q. How did you begin?
A. My first photography auction was also the first of the modern era, in 1971. I was 22 years old.
Q. How has the market evolved over all those years?
A. If you look over several decades, there are shifting patterns of availability. When I started in the business, we focused on 19th-century works, which became ever rarer. Then we shifted to avant-garde works of the ‘20s and ‘30s which are now scarce – so many collections have gone into museums.
In the last strength has been in works from the post-war years. There by Robert Frank, William Eggelston, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn.
Q. Can you talk about some of Christie’s headline-making sales, like the Man Ray that sold for $1.2 million in 2013? Or the Richard Avedon portrait of Dovima modeling Dior and posing with elephants, which sold for 841,000 euros in 2010 in Paris?
A. Those exceptional pieces might catch the public attention, but they reflect a wider interest. We see a strengthening, a broadening of the market.
Q. What is popular now?
A. The highest prices for photographic works have been in the contemporary art context. When a Man Ray sells for a million plus, that is a record for Man Ray – but contemporary artists can sell for several million. However, there is a relatively small cast of these artists: [Andreas] Gursky, [Cindy] Sherman and [Richard] Prince.
Q. Do you have major Asian collectors?
A. We’ve had some significant Asian buyers, most specifically Japanese, Hong Kong, and Korean buyers. The strongest interest is from Japan, where photography is a major part of the culture. Mainland Chinese buyers are statistically negligible at this point.
Q. Aren’t collectors worried that they may not be buying an original work, like a painting?
A. One concern newcomers have is questions of relative rarity – the idea that photographs can be produced ad infinitum.
To create beautiful prints is a high craft. Production is more limited than they imagine. Take Man Ray, for instance. In the ‘20s, he would make a tiny number of prints per negative. You can count them on your fingers.
Q. What advice would you give new collectors?
A. The subject is very wide – it is one-and-three-quarters centuries old. It’s like saying ‘I want to collect paintings. Where do I begin?’
They should hone in on a particular period, subject or artist. And they need to be familiar with what is in the marketplace.
Q. What’s special about photography?
A. It’s a window into the world and into history. I’m living evidence that photography is an engaging subject. Once you’re hooked, there’s no known cure.
Christie’s next major photography auction will be on Sept. 29 in New York.