11 Most Expensive Fine Art Photography Auction Results In The Last 10 Years

The last decade has produced some of the most outstanding auction results on record. Read on to discover eleven pieces of Fine Art Photography that sold for mind-blowing sums.

Sep 22, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
fine art photography auction
Untitled Film Still #48 by Cindy Sherman, 1979 (left); with Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman, 1985 (center); and Dead Troops Talk by Jeff Wall, 1992 (right)

In the 21st century, photography has come to be respected as a form of art equal to that of painting or sculpture. While cameras are ubiquitous, few possess the vision, skill, and creativity needed to qualify for the ranks of Fine Art Photography. For this reason, a select few photographers dominate the top of this industry, with their work selling for millions of dollars. This article reveals the most expensive photographs sold at auction in the last ten years, exploring what sets them apart from the rest and why they attract such huge investments.

What is Fine Art Photography?


Fine Art Photography is notoriously difficult to define, as there is no single aesthetic, technical, or methodological detail that sets it apart from the images that we all capture every day on our phones and cameras. Its beauty lies in the power of the photograph to tell a story, capture an emotion, or convey an idea; Fine Art Photography strikes at the heart of the human experience. In short, you know the difference between a photograph and a Photograph when you see it. Here are 11 of the most famous and expensive photographs sold in auction recently. 


11. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92, 1981

Realized Price: USD 2,045,000

cindy sherman untitled 92
Untitled #92 by Cindy Sherman, 1981, via Christie’s

Estimate: USD 900,000 – 1,200,000
Realized Price: USD 2,045,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 12 November 2013, Lot 10

About the Artwork

Contemporary American artist, Cindy Sherman, features prominently in the list of top-selling photographers of the past decade. She rocketed to fame in the 1980s with her series of self-portraits, each depicting her in the guise of a female character from popular culture. Titled Centerfolds, these photographs offered a new interpretation of the format typically used by men’s magazines such as Playboy. Whereas those images portrayed a hypersexualized view of women, Sherman’s artwork reclaimed the genre, as she choreographed, staged, and featured in the photographs herself. 

Untitled #92 is a fantastic representation of Sherman’s early work, as it perfectly captures the emotional intensity that makes her photographs so engaging. One of the many ‘Girl in Trouble’ shots, the character is reminiscent of a heroine in an early horror movie, with her expression, posture, and the surrounding darkness contributing to an ominous sense of danger. The photograph was immediately recognized as a great piece of art and was responsible for Sherman’s subsequent invitation to participate in both Documenta VII and the Venice Biennale. Three decades later, the image once again proved its importance when it sold for just over $2 million at Christie’s in 2013. 


10. Andreas Gursky, Paris, Montparnasse, 1993 

Realized Price: GBP 1,482,500 (equiv. USD 2,416,475)

paris montparnasse andreas gursky
Paris, Montparnasse by Andreas Gursky, 1993, via Sotheby’s

Estimate:  GBP 1,000,000 – 1,500,000
Realized Price: GBP 1,482,500 (equiv. USD 2,416,475)
Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, London, 17 October 2013, Lot 7

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About the Artwork

Born the year after Sherman, German photographer Andreas Gursky grew up in the complex political environments of East, and later West, Germany, which undoubtedly had an impact on his artistic approach. Like Sherman, he also makes art that frequently sells for seven-figure sums, with his striking panorama of a huge Parisian apartment building selling for almost $2.5m at Christie’s in 2013. 

The bare, striking façade of the building in Paris, Montparnasse reflects Gursky’s interest in architecture and his ambition to capture “the encyclopaedia of life”. It offers the characteristic combination of remote perspective (many of Gursky’s photographs are taken from a great distance or from the air) and minute detail that makes his work so immediately striking and intimately engaging. Documenting human life through his photography, Gursky captures the every day in a larger-than-life format. 


9. Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade, 1997

Realized Price: GBP 1,538,500 (equiv. USD 2,507,755)

chicago board of trade
Chicago Board of Trade by Andreas Gursky, 1997, via Sotheby’s

stimate: GBP 700,000 – 900,000
Realized Price: GBP 1,538,500 (equiv. USD 2,507,755)
Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, London, 23 June 2013, Lot 28

About the Artwork

Another outstanding piece of Fine Art Photography by Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade again merges the micro and macro scales to create an image that is cohesive and kaleidoscopic, as well as closely detailed and densely composed. Some have interpreted the elevated angle and chaotic atmosphere as a sign of Gursky’s disdain for the financial industry, while others have taken it as a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of an environment usually shielded from public view. 

The image also has great topical significance, as it captures a time before computer algorithms and remote engineers became a key part of the trading environment when the on-the-ground traders were at the center of all deals. Their brightly colored jackets and shirts, digitally enhanced with the aid of computer editing software, reflect the dynamism of such an operation. The sense of action, tension and energy exuded by the image made it the second most valuable photograph sold in 2013, won at a bid of over $2.5m and outdone only by its sister-shot, Chicago Board of Trade III.


8. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #153, 1985

Realized Price: USD $2,770,500

untitled 153 cindy sherman
Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman, 1985, via Phillips

Estimate: 2,000,000 – 3,000,000
Realized Price: USD $2,770,500
Venue & Date: Phillips de Pury & Co., New York, 08 November 2010, Lot 14

About the Artwork

The only photograph not sold at the major auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #153 was bought at Phillips in 2010 for $2.7m, making it one of the most expensive pieces of Fine Art Photography ever purchased at the time. The haunting image shows Sherman herself posing as a white-haired corpse, lying on the ground, her face flecked with mud and her eyes staring vacantly into the distance.

Part of Sherman’s Fairy Tales series, the photograph replaces the magical and charming with the mysterious and unnerving. Although it does not feature the grotesque prosthetics or unidentifiable forms that appear elsewhere in the series, Untitled #153 still achieves a disturbing effect that both intrigues and unnerves the viewer. The irresistible drama of the photograph certainly accounts for the huge price paid at auction. 


7. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #48, 1979

Realized Price: USD 2,965,000

untitled film still 48 cindy sherman
Untitled Film Still #48 by Cindy Sherman, 1979, via Christie’s

Estimate: 2,500,000 – 3,500,000
Realized Price: USD 2,965,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 13 May 2015, Lot 64B

About the Artwork

The genius of Cindy Sherman’s Fine Art Photography is once again demonstrated by Untitled Film Still #48, a photograph that asks many questions and answers none of them. In an unknown and unknowable time and place, Sherman stands alone on an empty highway, her face turned away from the camera and therefore offering no clue as to the character’s emotion. It is not clear who or what she is waiting for, where she is going, or where she has come from. The muted color, deserted landscape, and lack of clear emotion disarms the viewer, forcing them to contemplate and imagine the story behind the shot.

Untitled Film Still #48 is part of a series of images from fictional movies, in which Sherman, as usual, serves as both actor and director. Like the Centerfolds series, these photographs reclaim the female role so often dictated by men, but more than just an expression of empowerment, they engage the viewer in numerous deeper questions about reality and make-believe. The mystery of Sherman’s work has given it a lasting appeal and colossal value. In fact, Untitled Film Still #48, of which there are three examples, should rightfully claim two spots in this list; not only was one edition sold for almost $3m at Christie’s in 2015, but another was bought the previous year at Sotheby’s for $2,225,000!


6. Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 2000

Realized Price: USD 3,077,000

untitled cowboy richard prince
Untitled (Cowboy) by Richard Prince, 2000, via Sotheby’s

Estimate: 1,000,000 – 1,500,000
Realized Price: USD 3,077,000
Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 14 May 2014, Lot 3
Known Seller: Hedge-fund manager and contemporary art collector, Adam Sender

About the Artwork

American photographer and painter Richard Prince has attracted both critical acclaim and controversy throughout his career, mainly due to his practice of ‘rephotography’. In the late 1970s, Prince entered into the world of ‘appropriation art’ that had recently taken off, deliberately plagiarising the work of other artists by photographing pre-existing images and publishing them under his own name, sometimes with little or no changes. 

Prince’s Cowboys series, created throughout the 1980s, are key examples of his working method. The images are taken from advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes with all branding removed, blown up until they are overly pixelated and then refocused.  Prince openly boasted about how he “had limited technical skills regarding the camera. Actually I had no skills. I played the camera. I used a cheap commercial lab to blow up the pictures. I made editions of two. I never went into a darkroom.” 

This admission made it all the more contentious when Untitled (Cowboy) sold for over $1m at Christie’s in 2005, and then again in 2014 for a huge $3m. Many thought it unfair to credit Prince for a photograph originally taken by Sam Abell, while others claimed that his reinterpretation of the commercial image highlighted important and interesting assumptions about masculinity held by American society.


5. Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade III, 1999-2009

Realized Price: GBP 2,154,500 (equiv. USD 3,298,755)

chicago board of trade 2 andreas gursky
Chicago Board of Trade III by Andreas Gursky, 1999-2009, via Sotheby’s

Estimate: GBP 600,000 – 800,000
Realized Price: GBP 2,154,500 (equiv. USD 3,298,755)
Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, London, 26 June 2013, Lot 26

About the Artwork

Andreas Gursky appears once again with the third and final version of his famous Chicago Board of Trade photographs. Although on the whole less vibrant than the first and second versions, the colors of the dealers’ jackets still stand out boldly against the linear background of black desks and stairways. Reduced to blobs of color, they are remarkably both individuated as single beings and merged together in a complex, technicolor design. It is interesting to compare Chicago Board of Trade III with his Kuwait Stock Exchange, in which the homogenously dressed subjects create an altogether different but nonetheless enticing image. 

The third version of Gursky’s most recognized work is also the most valuable, selling at Sotheby’s in 2013 for just under $3.3m, exceeding its estimate by 169%. 


4. Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk, 1992

Realized Price: USD 3,666,500

dead troops talk jeff wall
Dead Troops Talk by Jeff Wall, 1992, via Christie’s

Estimate: USD 1,500,000 – 2,000,000
Realized Price: USD 3,666,5000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 08 May 2012, Lot 27
Known Seller: Estate of David Pincus, philanthropist and art collector

About the Artwork

Canadian artist Jeff Wall was instrumental in defining the Vancouver School of photography and is respected as much for his academic writings on the history of art, as for his exceptional photographs. One of the most striking and famous images captured by Wall shows wounded Russian soldiers in Afghanistan; its full title is Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986). 

Inspired by war photography but also determined to innovate, Wall staged the shoot. Despite this artificiality, however, the wounds of the scattered men and destruction that surrounds them vividly convey the harsh realities of war. The haunting image certainly proved moving enough to encourage one bidder to part with $3.6m to get their hands on the photograph, paying double its estimate when it appeared at Christie’s in 2012. 


3. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #96, 1981

Realized Price: USD 3,890,500

cindy sherman untitled 96
Untitled #96 by Cindy Sherman, 1981, via Christie’s

Estimate: USD 2,800,000 – 3,800,000
Realized Price: USD 3,890,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 08 May 2011, Lot 10
Known Seller: Akron Art Museum

About the Artwork

Cindy Sherman appears once more with another self-portrait from the Centerfold series of photographs, from which Untitled #96 is perhaps the most recognizable and celebrated shot. It embodies the disconcerting impression given by many of Sherman’s images, in which the female subject is both appealing and unnerving. Drenched in bright colors, the figure of the teenage girl at first appears carefree, as she reclines on the floor and stares off away from the camera. The oblique angle, closely cropped background, and somewhat awkward posture, however, all contribute to a sense of unease that permeates the photo.

Like many of Sherman’s Centerfolds, Untitled #96 invites the viewer to create a backstory for the pictured woman, imaging what is written on the torn paper grasped in her hand, or why she is lying on the floor at all. These questions have kept her audience intrigued for decades, and Untitled #96 actually accounts for two of the highest Fine Art Photography auction results in the last ten years, since it not only sold for almost $4m in 2011, but another edition was also bought the following year for $2.8m!


2. Richard Prince, Spiritual America, 1981

Realized Price: USD 3,973,000

Richard Prince’s Spiritual America is not displayed due to its explicit content; the image may be viewed here

Estimate: USD 3,500,000 – 4,500,000
Realized Price: USD 3,973,000
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 12 May 2014, Lot 19

About the Artwork

The most controversial of all Richard Prince’s photographs is Spiritual America, a rephotograph of Garry Gross’ nude images of a ten-year-old Brooke Shields, taken for a Playboy publication with the consent of her mother. In addition to the disturbing nature of the piece itself, its title is taken from a Modernist photograph by Alfred Stieglitz showing a castrated horse, which is thought to represent harnessed and restrained sexuality, clearly an inappropriate caption for a picture of a young child. 

Both the original shot and Prince’s rephotograph have attracted understandable criticism: Spiritual America was removed from an exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery after widespread outrage, and replaced with another photograph of the adult Shields wearing a bikini. Although Prince expressed his own reservations about the shot and claimed that his own version was concerned ‘with the medium and how the medium can get out of hand’, many believe that his rephotograph and the consequent promotion of the image was a highly irresponsible, if not reprehensible, move. Nonetheless, the piece still attracted huge bids when it appeared at auction in 2014, eventually selling for almost $4m.


1. Andreas Gursky, Rhein II, 1999 

Realized Price: USD 4,338,500

rhein ii andreas gursky
Rhein II by Andreas Gursky, 1999, via Christie’s

Estimate: USD 2,500,000 – 3,500,000
Realized Price: USD 4,338,500
Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 08 November 2011, Lot 44

About the Artwork

The most expensive piece of Fine Art Photography ever sold at auction is once again the work of Andreas Gursky. Unlike much of his other work, however, Rhein II is not a bustling image filled with people, shapes and objects, but a tranquil landscape capturing the Lower Rhine as it flows between broad green fields. The artist actually took pains to digitally remove any additional details, including dog walkers and a distance factory building, to ensure the absolute simplicity of the vista. The bands of sea, pavement, water and sky create the effect of a striped pattern, but their distinguished textures demonstrate that this image is wholly natural.

The immersive shot, in which the rippling waters are contrasted against the stillness of land and sky, transports the viewer to the banks of Europe’s second-longest river, to the stretch along which Gursky enjoyed his morning jog. Even without the knowledge of this intimate fact, the photograph conjures up a sense of memory and nostalgia that creates an immediate connection between the viewer and the landscape. It certainly struck a chord with one anonymous collector, who purchased Rhein II at Christie’s in 2011 with a winning bid of $4.3m. 


Fine Art Photography and Modern Art Auction Results

untitled 93 cindy sherman
Untitled #93 by Cindy Sherman, 1981, via Sotheby’s

These eleven photographs represent the very top of the Fine Art Photography industry and have played a major role in earning photographers the respect and admiration they deserve as artists. From dramatic self-portraits to serene landscapes, they demonstrate how multi-faceted a genre Fine Art Photography is, and how there is far more to it than pointing a camera and pressing a button. It is the creativity and skill behind these photographs that account for the many millions of dollars that have been spent on them over the past ten years at auction. For more impressive auction results, check out the 11 Most Expensive Modern Art sales and the 11 Most Expensive Old Master Art records.  

Author Image

By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.