Tim Jefferies: On Collecting Photography

Tim Jefferies

"For people coming into the photography market," says gallerist Tim Jefferies, "for the first foray into the world of photography, I wouldn’t get clever, I wouldn’t try to discover ‘the next Avedon’ — I would buy Avedon".

In his own words, the proprietor of Mayfair gallery Hamiltons shares the knowledge you’ll require to create a collection of important photography.

"There are several ways to approach the collecting of photography. First, it’s important to do the ground work — look through photography books, visit some galleries, look online, check auction records, so you get comfortable with the numbers that some of these important photographs demand. Sometimes a new client comes to me and says, ‘Look, we’re very interested in photography, but we don’t want to go mad to begin with, we want to stay within our comfort zone, so what would you recommend?’

"I would always recommend looking at the very best things. One of the great aspects to photography and the photography market is that for a fraction of the cost of a comparably important painting, you can buy a photograph by Richard Avedon or by Irving Penn for $20,000 or $30,000. Now, that’s a fairly large sum of money for a new purchase, but you’re buying a work by a photographer who is as important in photography as Picasso is in painting. You’re buying the work of a master. And with new clients, generally, nothing excites them more than buying something by a master and mentioning it to people — and their friends will respond, ‘oh, Irving Penn, I know that’, and that makes the buyer feel confident. And then, when I let them know in a year or two’s time that the thing they spent $20,000 on has increased in value by 20 percent or something — that makes people feel good.

"The other way is to go with living, modern, photographers such as Guido Mocafico, Erwin Olaf; these guys are sort of mid-career photographers whose works start in the €5,000 range — it’s amazing what variety and what quality of material is available to collectors at sub-$10,000 prices. A large Mocafico is actually more like $50,000 — but it’s a good case in point. When we started representing his material and selling his larger pictures four years ago, they were €20,000, so in four years, they have doubled in value.

"The most expensive thing I’ve got in the gallery at the moment is a photograph of two kids in Peru by Irving Penn, and it’s worth $1 million today. This is an image that has been on the market since the late 1970s. Back then, there wasn’t really a photography market to speak of anywhere in the world, so this thing sold very slowly and for very little money. And by very little money, I mean probably $5,000 for the first print. I saw prints of that image just a few years ago for $15,000. But it has increased in price as it sold through the edition of 60.

"A lot of people’s jaws drop when they hear that something from an edition of 60 can be worth $1 million — the default thinking is that to be an artwork, something has to be unique, one of a kind. I have a rather disingenuous response to that. I ask a client: ‘What car did you come here in?’ It’s always a BMW, Audi, Mercedes, or a Porsche. They will spend $100,000 on a car without giving it a second thought — but the second that car’s driven away from the dealership, it will lose 20 percent of its value, and there could be hundreds, if not thousands of the exact same car on the road. But when coming to buy a work of art in a limited edition, of let’s say 60, for $100,000, they get completely befuddled at the idea of paying such a sum when 59 other people could get the same thing.

"We try to recalibrate people’s understanding of what makes something important, what makes it valuable. Of course, editioning works is important to sustaining the market interest and prices, and the most important thing is dealing with reputable, established dealers, and working with known and proven artists.

"For people coming into the photography market, I would recommend that they go to an important gallery and look at the best quality they can afford. For the first foray into the world of photography, I wouldn’t get clever, I wouldn’t try to discover ‘the next Avedon’ — I would buy Avedon, build a base, build some confidence, and then go off piste a little bit, but to begin with, just stick with proven masters, because they are still, comparatively, really affordable.

"Let’s say you’re worth $10 million and you decide to invest $200,000 in art. That sort of money might get you a corner of a Warhol and a fraction of a Picasso. But for $200,000 you could put together quite a nice little photography collection, with very, very important ‘name’ photographers. It affords a great entry point to collecting important art."

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