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0054 Anna Bednarek, Photography at the Polish auction market (English Version)

RIHA Journal 0054 | 17 September 2012

Photography at the Polish auction market

Anna Bednarek

Editing and peer review managed by:

Katarzyna Jagodzińska, Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury, Kraków / International Cultural Centre, Krakow


Michał Haake, Adam Mazur

Polish version available at / Wersja polska dostępna pod: (RIHA Journal 0053)


The article analyses the state of the photography auction market in Poland on the basis of the sales in the period from the first photography auction (1996) until the end of 2011. The data allow the reader to discover the scale of this market (turnover, number of items sold), characteristics of purchased objects (price records, average prices, popular artists and periods) and the difficulties encountered when studying this phenomenon. The conclusion contains predictions on the further development of this market.



  1. Photography functions in many situations and contexts, which is why the photography market encompasses various phenomena. The demand for photography is wide-ranging, from the press and books through advertising and daily life to science and art. As a result the photography market offers very much variety – from amateur family pictures to works of great masters. Also the ways of selling and distributing photography are varied.1 One of them are auctions, where physically existing objects are offered, usually treated as works of art and purchased mostly by collectors and institutions such as museums.

  2. The phenomenon is relatively young, because for more than one hundred years of photography's existence the print itself did not represent a significant market value. It was a kind of half-product, used for making reproductions in newspapers and so on. The print market, independent from the market of studio and press photography, has been developing on a major scale since late 1960s.2 Of course, prints were bought and sold also earlier,3 but it was only the belief that they may be treated as works of art in their own right which made them appear on a growing scale in venues previously reserved for art trade (galleries, auctions, art fairs), hence achieving ever higher prices. A significant factor for the emergence of this market was the practice introduced in the United States and Western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s to specify the circulation (edition) of a photograph,4 thanks to which the purchaser knows how many identical prints were made.5

  3. When we leave aside the occasional 19th-century auctions,6 the first auction focused exclusively on photography took place in 1952 in the New York Gallerie Swann.7 In the 1960s and 1970s auctions started to be organised by such auction houses as Sotheby's, Christie's, Philips (now Philips de Pury & Company) and Drouot,8 which – alongside with many other auction houses in the world – continue this practice until today.

  4. Despite the significant growth of the market which occurred in the last quarter of the century, photography still accounts only for a fraction of the global art market and the prices are lower than for paintings. The Polish photography (and generally art) market is incomparable in scale and importance with Western markets, which results largely from Polish history – it was only from 1989 that the art market could develop freely, so it understandably remains many years behind Western markets. Moreover, the Polish population is much less wealthy and the artists are of mostly local renown. There are more factors influencing the Polish photography market but they would require a separate treatment. They include unsatisfactory state of research on the history of Polish photography, which is generally known to a narrow group of experts,9 bad condition of the photography magazines market, a limited number of experts and specialists on photography and a too narrow outreach of the Museum of History of Photography in Krakow.10

  5. It is difficult to ascertain when photography entered the Polish auctions; individual items appeared in a rather haphazard way in auctions of books, engraving or painting11 at least since the 1980s.12 The first two auctions in Poland selling only photographs were organised by the Association of Polish Artists Photographers (ZPAF) in 1996 and 1997 but as the turnover was not satisfactory, no further auctions were staged.13 It was only in 2003 that the auction house Polswiss Art undertook a similar initiative and Rempex followed suit in the same year. Despite a significant interest of the media in the Polswiss Art event14 it proved ephemeral (although next year there was a charity auction of photographs, it did not generate such an interest15). But the Rempex auctions have been continued, organised once or twice a year in cooperation with the website under the name Fotografia kolekcjonerska [Collectors' Photography].16

  6. Since 2005 photography auctions are also held by the Łódź auction house Rynek Sztuki. In 2007 ZPAF returned to auctions, organising four events of this kind until 2010. One auction was held by Desa Unicum (2009) and the ARTon Foundation (2010). Individual photographs also appear at various auctions (for example, of young art) in all major auction houses. They are also sold at antiquarian, charity, internet and gallery auctions.


Auction offer

  1. The offer of photography auctions in Poland so far has been variegated, from anonymous daguerreotypes from mid-19th century and cartes de visite made in popular ateliers through works of classics and avant-garde artists to photographs made by young creators. Auctions held by Rynek Sztuki, with the most homogenous offer, are an exception; these are photographs of decorative nature (landscapes, nudes) made by young or less known artists.

  2. Because of the short pedigree of the photography market the secondary market has not yet developed fully. Agnieszka Gniotek, co-organiser of the first three auctions from the cycle Polish Collectors' Photography (Rempex and, claims that most articles at the early auctions came from the artists themselves or their families. The secondary market gradually emerged and although at recent auctions within this cycle most items were still acquired from the artists themselves or their inheritors, about 30-40 percent came from the secondary market. Such a situation results also from the fact that institutional sellers are not very active, because museums rarely use the possibility of selling objects from their collections17 and financial institutions (for example, banks) are only beginning to establish their art collections. Initially this market void caused the appreciations to be excessive – because of the lack of points of reference – which in turn enlarges the turnover of post-auction sales. Although now appreciations are usually adequate, owners of the auctioned items are still pressing for increased asking prices.18

  3. Besides auctions focused exclusively on photography we should take note of auctions held by antiquarians, for photographs form a significant part of their offer. Undoubtedly a large part of these items have a documentary rather than artistic character but it is not a rule.19 Including them in our analysis may seem wrong but it is not my job or aim to judge arbitrarily which photographs are artistic and which are not, even assuming that such an appraisal would be possible20 (as Sylvie Pflieger and Dominique Sagot-Duvauroux correctly say, no one questions the fact that some photographs are works of art and most of them are not – but the whole problem is how to differentiate the former from the latter.)21 So I will only say that just as at auctions of paintings, engravings or sculptures we are dealing with masterpieces and with poor, imitative works of little value, also in the case of photography you can encounter true works of art and mass-produced photographs following the same pattern.22 So in my analyses I will take into account the results of all photography auctions in Poland, with all the above reservations kept in mind.


Accessibility of auction results

  1. Results of photography auctions allow us to make calculations and analyse the market but in the case of Poland their accessibility is incomplete. First, auction results are regularly published only by the Art & Business magazine23 but they usually do not cover events held outside auction houses (for example, charity auctions). The fullest data are presented by the website but it is not an ideal instrument.24 And the auction houses themselves usually publish on their websites the results of recent auctions but not those from several (or more) years back. Acquiring auction results from ZPAF is also not easy.25 So it would undoubtedly be useful if results of all hitherto photography auctions were published in one volume,26 especially that their number is not forbiddingly large.

  2. The second problem is connected with conditional sale, that is when the price of an item gradually comes down below the asking price and the first bidder conditionally becomes its owner. The sale may be concluded only when the original owner agrees to the lower price. But it does not always happen.27 What is more, there are similar situations with items sold at auctions governed by the traditional system, which are not always purchased after the auction,28 which distorts the results (pushing them upwards). So acquiring a real picture would only be possible if only concluded transactions (and post-auction sales) were published.

  3. Things being so, the following analyses are of necessity based on uncertain and probably incomplete data. In the tables and graphs below I took into account results published in the magazines Art & Business and as well as on the website. In absence of other sources this is the only possible, although imperfect, solution. I collected 3185 auction results in Poland from the period 1996-2011, which I analyse in the following sections of the article. There are no data to compare these analyses with, for as far as I know, the Polish photography market has been more extensively described only in three as yet unpublished works29 and isolated information on, for example, annual turnover at photography auctions appears only incidentally, usually without a wider comment or explanations.30


Turnover and number of items sold

  1. As the diagrams below reveal,31 until 2003 photography was largely absent at auctions; if we leave aside the two ZPAF auctions from 1996 and 1997, only a few pictures a year were sold. The year 2003 saw a break-through, for the two above-named auctions held by Polswiss Art and Rempex took place but it turned out that an attempt at creating demand through advertising and marketing measures was not quite successful, for in the two successive years the turnover and number of items sold fell significantly. Despite that the situation improved, for neither the turnover nor the number of items sold returned to pre-2003 levels. In the two last years we have been observing a decline, especially of turnovers in auction houses, which is probably connected with the global economic crisis.

  2. The presented data show that the photography market in Poland is small and accounts for an insignificant part of the entire art market, which in 2011 recorded the turnover of about 48.4 million PLN (c. 11 million euro – eds.).32 According to Maciej Gajewski, in 2011 photography constituted 1% of the turnover of the Polish art market and 2% of the number of transactions but he took into account only auction houses (he put the turnover at 266.04 thousand PLN and the number of transactions at 104).33 Even adding the remaining auctions would not significantly increase photography's share in the art market. But contrary to what may seem this situation is not markedly different from the global one – in 2011 photography accounted just for 1.6% of the entire auction turnover in the world.34 Also comparing price records reveals an inferior position of photography against other art disciplines: while the most expensive painting sold at an auction (Edvard Munch's The Scream) fetched the price 119.9 million dollars,35 the most expensive photograph (Andreas Gursky's Rhine II) cost almost 28 times less (4.3 million dollars).36

1 Turnover of photography auction sales in Poland in 1996-2011 (in thousands of PLN). Source: the author's calculations based on auction results published by the magazines Art & Business and (Gazeta Antykwaryczna) as well as the website

2 Turnover of photography auction sales in Poland in 1996-2011 divided between venues (in thousands of PLN). Source: the author's own calculations based on auction results published by the magazines Art & Business and (Gazeta Antykwaryczna) as well as the website

3 Number of photographs sold at auctions in Poland in 1996-2011. Source: the author's own calculations based on auction results published by the magazines Art & Business and (Gazeta Antykwaryczna) as well as the website

4 Number of photographs sold at auctions in Poland in 1996-2011 divided between venues (in thousands of PLN). Source: the author's own calculations based on auction results published by the magazines Art & Business and (Gazeta Antykwaryczna) as well as the website

  1. As the diagrams show, photography's share in auctions outside auction houses was relatively big, especially in terms of the number of transactions. Of all photographs sold in 1996-2011 at auctions in Poland 72.31% went under the hammer at auction houses and ZPAF, 12.59% at charity auctions, 8.53% at antiquarian auctions and 6.57% at other auctions. As we can see, the Polish market is so small that when we omit photographs sold outside auction houses, we are ignoring almost half of the purchased objects.


Price records

  1. In comparison to the price record quoted above, namely Gursky's photograph, the price of the most expensive photograph sold at a Polish auction was several times lower. Although all price records have to be approached with caution, they allow us to ascertain which authors are valued the most by the buyers, ready to pay the biggest sums for their works. Such rankings for paintings are published relatively often but I have never encountered a ranking of photographs auctioned for highest prices in Poland.