The Insider'S Guide To Selling Photographs

by Alex Novak


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Besides historical and aesthetic considerations, most photography collectors ultimately will face the real economic issue of both buying and selling images.

Few of us merely inherit a collection and then pass it on. These articles then are primers on the mechanics of buying and selling. They are not primers on the aesthetics or connoisseurship of collecting. We will add those soon.

You will probably reach a point when you will need to sell individual photographs or even your entire collection. How you should do so depends upon a number of factors, including how valuable are the images that you want to sell; how many images are there in the collection; is the collection a cohesive group or more haphazard; etc.

Determining Value

There are a number of ways that you can get at least a rough idea of the value of what you are trying to sell.

  1. If you have it, use the back of the AIPAD catalogue, which has a list of photographers and the AIPAD dealers who represent them. While the list is certainly not comprehensive, it is a good place to start. Once you locate one or two dealers who have some of the photographer’s work, you can call and get an idea of the real value. You will at least determine what the "retail" value of possibly comparable work is.
  2. Review past auction prices. You can do this with several products, but the best are Gordon’s Photographic Price Annual International in on-line database, CD-Rom and book formats,'s on-line price search (which offers both package and flat rate searches), The Photographic Art Market: Auction Prices book, and the ADEC Art Price Annual in CD-Rom and book formats.
  3. Use the services of an experienced photography dealer or appraiser to give you a condition report and an evaluation of the current value of a piece in today’s market.

Outright Sale

Perhaps the easiest and sometimes the best way to dispose of an image or group of images is an outright sale directly to a photo dealer or fellow collector. You do not have to wait for your money (and the interest it could make having it in hand immediately), risk loss of your photographs with a consignment, nor have any confusion on details later. Expect that a dealer will want to buy an item at 50% (or even less) of the normal resale amount. This really is not as bad as it seems when you look at the alternatives below.

Have a Dealer Sell It for You

You can also give an image or a group of images to a photo dealer to sell for you. They will probably charge you a 20-50% commission to sell it, depending on its value and ease of sale. Such a commission is very fair. A dealer has to scan the work, put it in a database and on-line, carry/ship it to shows, invoice it, issue checks, account for it, pay taxes on the commission, deal with you and the customers, possibly insure it, etc. It is hardly worth their time for smaller items under $2,000. Obviously, if you have a wonderful $35 million collection, you will be able to negotiate a much lower commission structure, although the dealer may have much higher costs, including a printed catalogue and advertising.

Always make sure that you get a receipt for the work with the full details of any and all dealer charges/commissions. Check to see who exactly is responsible for insurance. If you are, check with your agent or broker that such a consignment will be covered under your policy. Make sure who is responsible for the expense of a catalogue or advertising. Make sure that the dealer has to pay you within a set period of time after they have been paid on the work. If a payment schedule is part of the deal, make sure the dealer has to approve this with you (although this will constrict the dealer’s ability to make a sale if they can not contact you). Remember to negotiate. Different dealers will charge different rates, but there may be differences in marketing and pricing your image/s too.

Also make sure that you know the dealer/gallery very well. If the dealer is an AIPAD member, contact AIPAD in Washington, DC to see if they have ever had a complaint listed against them.

Have an Auction House Sell Them

Auction houses are usually the first place people think about for selling their images. The auction house may indeed be a very good way to dispose of a major collection or a single important image. You should consider that a major auction house would usually charge you 35-50% of the selling price if you factor in all the various fees and charges (illustration $150-$475; buyer’s premium 25-28%; seller’s premium approx. 10%; insurance 1-1/2-2%; preparation fees; in Europe part or all of the droit de suite, which could be as high as 4% additional; and shipping to and from). Also remember that due to scheduling their catalogues and payments, you often have to wait six to nine months for your money. You might even have to pay most of these fees including a "buy-in" fee, even if the auction house fails to sell your item. That is often 5% of the low estimate. This buy-in fee can often be negotiated out of the standard contract. Do negotiate.

Remember that there may be vast differences in rates between various houses, but there also may be the same differences in the final auction price of item/s between these houses.

On-Line Selling

Besides photo dealers and the traditional auction houses, your alternative right now is to turn to on-line selling sites.

EBay (roughly 3-1/2+ to 8-3/4%, plus additional fees if you do it yourself) is one such alternative. If you go this route, you must be able to scan and put up your work on-line. If you have never done so, this will be a costly and time-consuming project. Once you have the basics down (which might take you a few months if you've never scanned before), I always estimate about an hour to two hours per item. That's the average time to scan, put the item up on eBay, answer email and phone questions, invoice it (if it sells), and account for it. There are some dealers who will do this for you for a fee. The prices you get on line can be very good, or not so good. Hard images (daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes), American Western images, and American Civil War images all do fairly well on line, particularly on eBay. Paper prints are more erratic, but work decently for such photography under about $2,000.

Charitable Donations

There is one other route that you should always consider when attempting to dispose of your photographs: charitable donations and the tax deduction that comes with these donations. If your photographs could have a large capital gain (the difference between your original purchase price and the selling price) and you are in a top tax bracket, you probably should look seriously at donating your photographs. Often donation will net you more after-taxes dollars than selling the photographs. You are currently allowed up to 30% of your net income a year for a charitable donation made in-kind (non-cash) (excess is carried over for three years).

You must get a formal and time-based paid appraisal for any donation over $5,000 (See the article on Appraisals in this section). Make sure that the appraiser has very good appraisal credentials and a familiarity with photography in particular if you want to avoid costly IRS challenges. You will also have to get an institution or museum to accept your photographs, but this is rarely a problem if the images are of quality. Still, contacting the appropriate curator well in advance of the end of the year is highly advisable. Often a committee must approve all acquisitions, even those that are donated. The institution and appraiser will have to fill out and sign the proper paperwork, which your appraiser will usually supply. Your accountant should also review any such arrangements.

Resource Information

Gordon's Art Reference
306 West Coronado Rd
Phoenix, AZ 85003-1147

Photographic Art Market
140 East Richardson Ave
Langhorne, PA 19047

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Novak has over 42 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Historical Photographic Society. He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.