x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Put your money in the frame

Although photographs have yet to reach the multi-million-dollar price tags of works by famous artists such as Monet or Picasso, there is still money to be made in the medium.

Etude de plantes, daguerreotype by Joseph-Philibert Girault De Prangey, Paris, 1841.
Courtesy Christies Images
Etude de plantes, daguerreotype by Joseph-Philibert Girault De Prangey, Paris, 1841. Courtesy Christies Images

For a long time, photography was seen as the poor stepsister of painting. But since the early 1970s, there has been a growing interest among investors in photography, with the works of some photographers having potentially increased in value a hundredfold.

Initial interest in the new investment medium was confined to antique photographs, particularly in images of the Middle East dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries. These pieces can still command prices far higher than the work of contemporary photographers, although a shortage of 19th-century prints is now spurring investor interest in more modern works.

The Middle East played a crucial role in the early development of photography and quickly became its key focus shortly after the inception of the new science, when the Institut de France unveiled the early photographs of Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre on August 19, 1839.

French photographers as well as those from other European countries soon flocked to the Middle East to record the antiquities then being unearthed in locations such as Egypt. According to the Institut de France, the new science enabled a single photographer to do the work of legions of draftsmen. Soon, Middle Eastern photographers were also using the new technology.

When Christie's, the London-based auction house, held a major photography auction in New York on October 7, the day was largely devoted to a special auction of some of the work of the early French photographer, Joseph Girault de Prangey. De Prangey travelled widely and the auction included early photographs of the kind called "daguerreotypes" in honour of photography's founding father.

The auction included pictures taken by de Prangey in locations such as Luxor and Cairo in Egypt, as well as early photographs from Lebanon, Syria and other Middle Eastern locations. De Prangey's daguerreotypes are typically priced at well over US$10,000 each (Dh36,729).

According to Alexander Montague-Sparey, a rare photographs expert at Christie's, the world record for a single daguerreotype was achieved in 2003 for a De Prangey picture of the Temple of Jupiter in Athens. Christie's sold the piece for $922,488 to an anonymous buyer, widely reported to have been Sheikh Saud al Thani of Qatar.

The fact that the world record for a single daguerreotype has not been broken since 2003 is not because values have remained flat; far from it: it is because there is a lack of sought-after photographs.

"The reason why the record has not been broken in seven years is that a lot of daguerreotypes are in private collections and do not often come onto the market," Mr Montague-Sparey says.

This is doubly true of photographs that depict images that are particularly treasured in the Muslim world. According to Richard Fattorini, a director at Sotheby's books and manuscripts department and an expert on Middle Eastern photography, old photographs of Mecca and Medina are particularly sought after by Middle Eastern collectors.

"There is a huge amount of interest in Middle Eastern photography," Mr Fattorini says. "The first photographs of Mecca and Medina by Egyptian-born photographer Mohammed Sadiq Bey were sold for £1.4 million [Dh8m]."

Mohammed Sadiq Bey won a gold medal at the Venice geographical exhibition in 1881 and there are only two other copies of the pictures of Mecca and Medina. One is in the care of Institut de France and the other is in the hands of a private collector.

Another archive containing photographs of Mecca and Medina taken between 1904 and 1908 was recently sold by Sotheby's for £500,000. These were taken by the Egyptian photographer Muhammed Ali Effendi Sa'udi using the then revolutionary technique of three dimensional photography.

"Sometimes called 'stereo photography', this process involved using a camera with two lenses," Mr Fattorini says. "The pictures were taken at slightly different angles and a special viewer superimposed both images to create a 3D image."

Investors are often attracted by the techniques used by early photographers. Mr Montague-Sparey says that the earliest 19th-century daguerreotypes, which were sometimes called a "mirror with a memory", have a special attraction for the collectors of old photographs. Unlike the paper-printing process discovered soon after Daguerre revealed his process, daguerreotypes cannot be displayed on a wall, but are copper plates that need to be stored in a dark surrounding to preserve their image.

"What pictures in brochures cannot show is how beautiful daguerreotypes are, like mirrors," Mr Montague-Sparey says. "Daguerreotypes are sensitive to light, much like a Polaroid and they are not generally displayed, but stored in a dark place."

According to Sotheby's, the market for 19th-century photographs is dominated by Middle Eastern, European and US investors. But auctions in antique photography as art only began in the early 1970s, at a time when many of the best pieces were already in the hands of institutions. This puts public bodies such as museums at a huge advantage when compared with private collectors. London's Victoria and Albert Museum, for instance, began collecting photographs in 1852 and was the first museum in the world to collect photographs as fine art. The museum currently stores about 250,000 19th-century photographs, most of which are permanently available for public viewing.

According to Martin Barnes, the senior curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, many of the early works by photographic pioneers such as William Henry Fox Talbot can now command six-figure sums. But, aside from their commercial value, Mr Barnes believes that old photographs will always hold a special fascination for collectors.

"For me, much of the appeal is the study of the art of photography," he says. "There is also an element of nostalgia in looking at a scene that has long since vanished or a face that has long since disappeared. Many of the oldest photographs can appear startlingly contemporary. Faces, for example, do not appear to have changed very much."

However, Mr Montague-Sparey says photography is just as much subject to the whims of fashion as any other investment medium.

"If you look at our sales of the 1990s, they rely heavily on 19th-century photographs," he says. "Now, contemporary photographers such as Irving Penn are more popular. One reason is that the good 19th-century photographs have run out. Museums such as the Victoria and Albert in London are big collectors."

The growing shortage of good 19th-century prints has spurred interest in more modern works. The work of some photographers, such as that of Henri Cartier-Bresson, has potentially increased in value by roughly a hundredfold over the past 25 years.

In May 1983, a famous Cartier-Bresson image called On the Banks of the Marne, which depicts a group of picnickers in 1938, was offered for sale by Sotheby's with a reserve price of $4,510. In 2008, a print of Hyères, France, 1932, another famous Cartier-Bresson image, sold at Christie's in New York for $265,000, well above its estimated sale price of $90,000.

But the sheer volume of photographs taken over the past 150 years means many interesting contemporary and even 19th-century pieces can still be bought for $5,000 or sometimes much less. This means there is still room for the small private collector to make a killing.

"To be a collector, particularly of old photographs, requires a certain amount of luck as well as perseverance," Mr Fattorini says. "There are Middle Eastern antique shops where it is sometimes possible to buy relatively cheap mixed albums of old photographs that sometimes contain real treasures."