Appraisals, Value Statements and Investing
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, and the degree of 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 during the recent run up to the top of the market. The current (2015-2017) price for a late print in very good to excellent condition is $45-55,000. 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 on the market.
Appraisals are thorough evaluations of a specific print, examined by a licensed appraiser, and assessed in relation to other comparable works to determine a specific value. Appraisals can require a fair amount of time and experience, particularly when working with Adams prints (because of the variation in established values for different vintages and conditions), and especially particularly [I know it isn’t grammatically correct] when the piece is rare. As such, we estimate that a minimum appraisal cost will be in the neighborhood of $500, and could be much higher for an extensive collection or an unusual piece.
We get requests for appraisals, typically for insurance purposes or estate valuations. We have decided as a matter of policy not to become licensed and certified appraisers, for the following reason: ethically, an appraiser should not have a financial interest in a work they have appraised for five years before or after that appraisal. Because we are in the business of buying and selling Ansel Adams original photographs, we do not want to preclude ourselves from that business opportunity. There are a few well qualified and experienced appraisers for Ansel Adams work, and we can and do recommend them to interested parties.
Sometimes people want to know the value of a piece, but decide that an appraisal is not in the budget or doesn’t exactly fit the purpose they need. The Ansel Adams Gallery does offer a Value Statement, which states clearly that it is not an appraisal, that we are not appraisers, but our experience in the market qualifies us to state that a print, as described, that has not been inspected, would have a value within a range of $X to $Y. You can purchase a Value Statement from us here.
The Ansel Adams Gallery is not an investment advisor. We do not hire investment advisors, at least for that purpose. We do not recommend purchasing artwork as an investment. We do recommend that people purchase what they love (within their budget). That said, when there is an active secondary market for an artist’s work, there is a reasonable opportunity to sell the work at a future date. Be advised that transaction costs are high (see discussion of market), and an investor will have to see a significant appreciation to cover those transaction costs. The principal factors when it comes to price are noted above. Adams is probably one of the more stable artists we’ve seen, his work did not have the spectacular run-up in the last decade, nor did it fall nearly as much subsequent to the financial crises of 2008. The prices did go up, and prices did go down.
What will they do in the future? We don’t know. Ansel isn’t printing any more, so supply will go down over time with unfortunate accidents. Ansel’s reputation as “The Master” is pretty solid, and probably won’t change. His popularity, relative to more modern photographers, waxes and wanes. Sometimes his work is considered cliché, sometimes it is recognized that his work seems cliché because everyone else is trying to emulate him. Demand for his work fluctuates, probably with the economy as much as anything else. The changing medium to digital away from silver gelatin could be a factor in future pricing, or it could be a non-issue. It is unlikely that there is some undiscovered trove of work, although there may be some large collections that come on to the market. The Polaroid Collection had a pretty large number of Adams pieces a few years ago, which seems to have been absorbed pretty easily.
Some modern and contemporary artist’s work has turned out to be a great investment, and some people use it as a hedge against inflation. If this is your intent, buy the gold standard, the proven artists. Some artwork will stand the test of time, some won’t. If you are unsure which is which and it is critical to you, get some paid financial advice or do a LOT of research. If you are unsure and you aren’t betting your retirement, contact us (we aren’t investment advisors, but we do know Ansel’s work very well).