The Most Expensive Photo in the World (or the Best Marketing Stunt)

The Most Expensive Photo in the World (or the Best Marketing Stunt)

The airways and Internet tubes have been filled with news that Peter Lik has sold a black and white photo of Antelope Canyon for a record setting $6.5 million, raising eyebrows amongst many photographers. This tops the previous record holder, Andreas Gursky, by nearly $2.2m.

Andreas Gursky's Rhine II sold for $4.2m - the most expensive photo ever.

Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II sold for $4.2m – the most expensive (verified) photo ever.

As with his 2010 piece, One, the purported sale was to a private collector, and therefore there was no way to verify the claim. Rumors have swirled for years that Lik’s investors “buy” his works at absurd prices as a marketing stunt to generate interest in his work. Lik has multiple galleries in the US and in his home country of Australia, and aggressive sales tactics are a hallmark of the galleries’ style.

Price, of course, is arbitrary, and one could make the argument that the eye-rolling is rooted in jealousy. But I think that this is naive and dismisses the collective taste, experience and knowledge of most photographers. Let’s be honest, this is not a remarkable image in any sense of the word. Nor is it a remarkable unremarkable image like Gursky’s Rhein II.

Sara Friedlander, Vice President, Head of Evening Sales at Christie’s explained that the price of a photo in the art world is based on an amalgamation of uniqueness, provenance and scale. You can dispute the validity of the art world’s own self-righteousness and tendency to boost the price of its favorites, but you can’t dispute Friedlander’s criteria.

Lik’s work has none.

He sells his images by the hundreds in his limited editions (the image in question is a black and white conversion of a color image that he has in his portfolio). Although the size of the piece wasn’t disclosed, there’s no indication that it deviates from any pieces that you might in his gallery. And he didn’t come from a lineage of photographers or mentors.


Lik’s “Ghost” is the color image from which the most expensive photo is derived.

But all that aside, the lack of transparency in the sale raises nothing but questions about the validity of the claim. It feels like a marketing stunt to get Lik’s name in the news, and a few more feet into the galleries. On that account, the sale is a success. But you’d be hard pressed to find support for his artistry.

If you want to be inspired by a master marketer, look no further than Lik. If you want to see great photography, head over to the ICP and see the Salgado exhibit.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 33 comments for this article
  1. marc at 3:57 pm

    Don’t care much what anyone’s willing to pay for “fine” art, but why am I so uncomfortable with the “And he didn’t come from a lineage of photographers or mentors” line?

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 4:00 pm

      I’m not implying that it is imperative for high price, but it is something that is considered just like how the old masters trained disciples, we see some of the same with Yale MFAs and the like.

    • Tom at 6:57 pm

      Agreed. Hypothetically, if an artist emerges from the woods with a body of work and no lineage at all, there is no reason not to judge his works on any other criteria than aesthetics alone. These days, however, most of the major photographers will have this background if only because it helps get them noticed.

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  3. Sean at 11:11 pm

    The simple fact that it was a private sale and wasn’t an auction sale (where at least two bidders are needed to drive up the price), not to
    mention that it doesn’t even sit well in the photographer’s sales range, plus the fact his last 2010 sale for $1m can not be verified, geez…. It doesn’t take a brainiac to realise what’s going on.

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  6. Rick at 8:50 am

    Zero chance this is true. It’s a marketing stunt.
    This guy’s work is not considered art. He’s a vegas large format landscape photographer.
    The image itself is not rare. It’s at a place thousands of people photograph with a guide throwing sand into the air – then he dodged and burned to get the Phantom.
    While he has sold some six figure work at his store to people that need to fill a lot of wall space, he’s not an fine artist and his work is not collectable on the art market.

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  8. Saorsa at 12:26 pm


    You only get to Upper Antelope Canyon with a guide. This is a point in the canyon where photographers are lined up and the guide throws a small shovelful of sand into the beam of light and steps back out of sight to the right. Unless Lik had signed up for a private tour (unlikely at the time of day it was taken) or the special photographers tour which is limited to 5 to 10 people, that image was taken with a background soundtrack of DSLRs firing at max FPS.

    Great marketing though.

  9. Fred at 4:11 pm

    I’d personally take Lik’s “Phantom” over Gursky’s “Rhine II”. Sure the sale’s unverified and I guess that does allow for the possibility of it not being genuine, and therefore a marketing stunt, but that is all speculation.

    There does seem to be a lot of jealousy and “tall poppy syndrome” among members of the photography community over this, including much criticism of Lik and his artistry – or lack thereof. I personally like Lik’s work. Not all of it. But much of it. And isn’t art of any form – whether photography or otherwise – subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    Re: comments about such images being a dime a dozen, yes Upper Antelope Canyon is easily accessible, albeit on a guided tour. But having shot there myself, unfortunately on a day (or time of day) when the light beams were not visible, I can tell you it’s not as easy as it looks – especially creating images that also include the canyon floor.

    The best way to get a decent shot in Antelope Canyon, on a DSLR at least, is tripod, shutter release and long exposure times – definitely not firing at max FPS as has been mentioned in another comment here. There’s multiple tour groups being hurried through the canyon, with many tourists taking happy snaps using flash (a potential spoiler to your own images), the tripod constantly at risk of being kicked and people regularly wandering into frame and pausing there.

  10. Saorsa at 4:51 pm

    True, but to use a tripod you need to take the special photographers tour and even then will have the regular tour groups walking around you. The benefit is that you can stop where you like and wait for the gaps.

    As to the sunbeams, the canyon is narrow, you need to time your visit around local noon. This is the time you will know the sun is overhead. Local noon isn’t necessarily 12:00 PM on your watch. To be fair, I prefer Lik’s image to my own for several reasons (square light shaft, straight cutoff on left side) but I don’t see the 6.5 million dollar difference.

  11. sabina at 4:54 pm

    This is unrelated to the above topic, but…
    What Sara says is interesting, however I have a hard time understanding that a client would have a problem with a percentage of an auction sale going to the artist. There would be no art to sell without that artist!

    • David at 5:59 am

      The percentage as paid in Europe is paid by the buyer, ON TOP of the hammer price in the same way that the auction house premium is added, so it is quite natural that auction houses and their clients (who are usually individuals and collections selling works, not artists themselves) will lobby against this as it means buyers have less additional costs to factor in when deciding their maximum bid amount. Of course auction houses are not against artist’s earning more money for their sales, but their first commitment must be to their clients.

  12. dare at 5:13 pm

    Peter Lik’s work is iconic. He was first at many places which became popular after his TV show. His work from 2011 “One” gone for $1 million and is “missing link” between painting and photograph. Who is buying Lik’s art? Mostly loaded from LA. Other photographers reach lower prices but for normal every day people prices are still astronomical.
    You Americans claim tatooing is art. For me, European, it is just bad taste. Is photography art?

    • Tom at 1:53 pm

      dare: I warn against stereotyping even for the purpose of shorthand. I am an American and have the same feeling about tattooing as you do.
      “Is Photography Art,” is as old a question as photography. There will be those who still raise the question, but the issue is certainly already settled as I suspect you already agree.

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  14. Douglas Peebles at 2:10 am

    He is actually a very good photographer but the hype ranges from exaggeration to flat out lies. I’m guessing it works for him.

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  18. MIT Images at 6:51 am

    I am really hoping this is a marketing stunt. I guess for me I just don’t see what it is about some of his photos that are creating such a price point. Am I missing something here?

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