Some Variables that Determine the Value of a Photographic Print...
These are a few of the factors that go into determining the market value of a photograph. Note that there are always exceptions to the rules.
Rarity: It is the negative, which theoretically allows for an endless number of identical prints to be made of a particular photograph, that distinguishes photography from every other medium. In practice, however, all prints are not equally beautiful; and the number of prints produced in a photographer's lifetime is finite. Also, some early photographic processes were inherently fragile, which limits the number of good pieces that have survived. And some contemporary photographers create one-of-a-kind works. Rarity in both quality and quantity can often increase a photograph's value. It is simply a matter of supply and demand.
Edition: Creating a limited edition of a particular photographic print is a way of assuring a certain degree of rarity. Some contemporary photographers create numbered editions of prints; others do not. In some cases, it just doesn't seem to matter. Ansel Adam's famous "Moonrise Over Hernandez" photograph has sold for as much as $30,000, even though there are as many as 900 prints in existence, an enormous number for a single photograph.
Vintage Print: This is a photograph that was made at roughly the same time as the negative, and usually printed by the photographer him/herself. A vintage print is generally worth more than one printed later which, in turn, is generally worth more than one printed after the photographer's death.
Signature & Identifying Marks: Some photographers prior to 1980 did not sign their photographs unless they were for exhibition. Signing, titling and dating have become more common as the value of photographs has risen, and as photographic shows have become increasingly popular. However, you should also look for other identifying marks, such as stamps, which can be found anywhere on the photographic paper (borders, back). Distinguishing marks of any kind usually increase the value of a print.
Provenance: This is the history of a photograph's ownership. If it was part of an important exhibition or collection, private, corporate or institutional, its value is enhanced
Condition: A photograph in pristine condition is worth more than one with scratches or creases. Often conservation work can be done to repair or enhance an image. This does not decrease the value of a print, although the seller should tell the buyer exactly what's been done and list any chemicals that may have been used.
Color Permanence: Many people are concerned about the instability of the dye used in color photographic printing. In the past, dye transfer prints and Cibachromes were the only relatively permanent color processes. Today, there are new papers on the market that are considered relatively stable, but color prints still require special handling and storage. Ask your dealer if you have a questions about how best to protect a color photograph from fading.
Print Quality: This is a subjective, but very important, judgment call. W. Eugene Smith, for example, was as famous for his brilliant work in the darkroom as for taking incredible photographs. Is a print luminous? Or is it somehow flat and boring?
Reputation: A photograph by a well-known, well-established photographer will always demand a higher price than one by a lesser-known artist.
Auction Prices: Every serious collector should follow the auction market carefully. In recent years, many photographs by well-known and significant photographers, such as Edward Weston and Man Ray, have commanded six-figure hammer prices at auction, establishing new market records. Auction catalogs are available from Christie's (1-800-395-6300), Sotheby's (I-800-444-3709), Swann (212-254-4710) and Butterfield & Butterfield (213-850-7500).
Market & Demand: Just why certain photographs, photographers and styles of photography become popular at any given moment is hard to say. However, there are trends to watch in the market. What you decide to collect may not be particularly popular today, but very much in demand tomorrow. For a while, one was terribly interested in documentary photography. Then interest started grow and new work by contemporary photographers such as Sebastiaõ Salgado are selling extremely well. After the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years ago, demand for East European photography soared.
Matting, Framing, Storage & Shipping...
Photographs, like all works on paper, must be matted and stored according to archival standards. This includes not coming into contact with any acidic materials. Photographs should be matted on acid-free board, of which there are two kinds: 100% rag board (made from cotton fibers) and the less expensive conservation board (made from purified wood pulp). It is preferable to use rag board, but if cost is an issue, the latter has proven to be extremely stable.
When framing, always use an over-mat in order to keep the surface of the photograph from coming into contact with the glass. If you wish to float the image, other creative alternatives can be used, such as a shadow box or placing plastic spacers between the print and glass. Ultra-violet light can fade or damage a photograph, so ask your dealer if UV-filtering glass or plexiglass should be used.
Photographic storage boxes vary greatly in quality and price. They range from inexpensive Hollinger boxes to fancy presentation boxes. As long as they're constructed with acid-free materials, you're safe. When storing loose prints, be sure to enclose them in either archival plastic bags (made of polyethylene) and/or interleaved with archival glassine or interleaving tissue.
If you choose to use a flat file for storage, a metal one is preferable. Wood flat files are much more attractive but chemicals used in the production of wood may be harmful. Nevertheless, they can be lined with acid-free board to reduce the possibility of contact. Light Impressions, a mail-order company out of Rochester, New York, sells a variety of archival products. Call for free catalog (I-800-828-6216).
The two objectives when shipping a photograph are to keep it flat and dry. Always wrap a snugly-fitting plastic bag (polyethylene) around the print and sandwich it between two pieces of either 1/8" thick plywood or masonite. The panels should be at least 2" larger than the print all the way around. If the surface of the wood seems rough, sandwich the print in cardboard first. Tape the entire perimeter securely with packing or strapping tape. If shipping a large number of prints, pack the wood sandwich in a carton surrounded by bubble wrap or styrofoam peanuts. Carriers like Federal Express or UPS, which generally do a very good job of tracking packages, are preferable to the US Postal Service. Always insure the work, either through the shipping company or through a private insurer. If you are shipping a framed piece, use a professional shipper.