Sold: the most expensive photography books
Do you know which was the most expensive photography book ever sold? What would your guess be? How about the more expensive photography books on store shelves? The rarest or the most sought after? Make some guesses, write them down, then compare when you get to the end.
(Note: all values in USD, converted at time of writing)
Sumo, a monograph by Taschen on the work of Helmut Newton (1999), sold at auction for $ 430,000. Of course, this version was signed by 80 of Newton’s famous subjects. The original 10,000 print is sold out, but if you bought one at the time, your initial investment of $ 1,500 would now net you a tidy sum in the range of $ 8,000 to $ 20,000. I’m lucky to have a reprint on my shelf that cost just under $ 150 at the time of purchase (thanks, John!).
Currently, the most expensive original prints available on so-called retail shelves are Taschen’s Leibovitz monograph and GOAT, a photo book by Muhammad Ali. GOAT sells for $ 15,000 if you want real prints with or $ 6,000 if you want a first edition. It’s a good deal at $ 150 if you want an unlimited printed copy. Leibovitz’s monograph sells for $ 5,000 with a signature and an archival contact sheet. Or, for the low price of $ 3,000, if you skip the contact sheet and go for a signed original. There is no serial printing of Leibovitz’s monograph yet.
These Taschen books are beautiful, but the prices are steeped in the multiple signatures, limited editions, and the inclusion of real photo prints. The books themselves aren’t worth the thousands, as evidenced by the reduced prices once Taschen removes the bells and whistles.
The AbeBooks online auction and bookseller publishes a list of their best sellers each year. In 2018, a signed copy of Photographs of Mexico (1940) by Paul Strand sold for $ 16,000. In 2014, two copies of David Baily’s Box of Pin Ups (1965) sold on Abe, one for just under $ 12,000. Neither has been signed. Interestingly, the Strand and Baily collections are loose leaf. Just in case you’re in the market, there is currently a signed copy of Baily’s book on Amazon for $ 25,000. Do you have change to burn?
I had trouble finding auction prices for the hardcover books. While auction listings are easy to find, what they sell for is often kept a secret by auction houses. The highest auction price is probably that of The North American Indian (1907) by Edward Curtis. From what I could find, early editions regularly sell for over $ 1 million at auction. Again, this is a loose leaf, more of a portfolio than a book. The information I could find implied that the earliest hardcover versions of Curtis’ book sold for between $ 10,000 and $ 50,000, depending on the state. If you’re interested, Christopher Cardozo, art collector and historian in Saint-Paul, republishes Curtis’s work in two special editions, one for $ 37,500 and a budget version for $ 6,500. Magnificent anyway!
AbeBooks has an interesting article floating around in their archives that summarizes the most collectable books. I’m not sure what Abe means by collectable, but the list is essentially a who’s who of early 20th century photographers: Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958-1959), Brassaï’s Paris de Nuit (1933), The Decisive Moment by Cartier-Bresson. (1952), Sierra Nevada by Ansel Adams (1938) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) by James Agee and Walker Evan. While you can buy reprints of these books, the original print versions will set you back a pretty penny.
Rare and out of print books
Further research of the internet reveals dozens of lists of rare photography books. Med Sod Forstaelse by Krass Clement (1982), a monograph on Danish prostitution, Moments Preserved by Irving Penn (1960), Calvin Klein Jeans by Bruce Weber (1991), Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha (1967), Tulsa by Larry Clarke (1971), The Teenage Smokers by Ed Templeton (1999), and The Bangy Book / New York Street Boys (1988) by Vincent Alan W seem to reappear over and over again. Aside from Tulsa, these books are all out of print. You should be able to find copies of Penn’s book, but finding a good copy of the others will be a chore and cost you up to a thousand dollars.
The Family of Man, a gallery catalog for the eponymous exhibition, curated by Edward Steichen, has been in print since 1955. From what I could find, it is the longest print run of any photography book.
Speaking of exhaustion, Book Finder publishes a list of the most wanted out of print books every year. Although it moves up and down the list, Madonna’s Sex appears on their lists year after year.
Currently, Amazon lists Kate T. Parker’s Strong is the New Pretty (2017), followed by two Obama photography books as the best-selling photography books by volume. It must be the Trump effect. Funny, Ansel Adams’ ubiquitous wall calendar makes it into the top ten despite not technically being a book. Rounding out the top ten you’ll find At Work by Annie Leibovitz and Dogs Underwater by Seth Casteel. I’m sure Anne Geddes would figure somewhere in a record sales volume figure.
I find it very interesting that Adams and Ruscha are landscape photographers: Weber, Penn, Leibovitz, Baily and Newton are fashion photographers, but the rest of these lists are dominated by street photographers or ethno-photographers. Does this surprise you? It certainly surprised me.
Well if you played the game and guessed the bestsellers before reading, were you right?
Main image provided by Christopher Cardozo