An article in Fotomundo Featuring Penelope Dixon on Collecting


Penelope Dixon: About Appraising photography 

Specialist in the appraising of photographs, Penelope Dixon, was visiting Buenos Aires. What are the consideration taken in valuation of a photograph, interest in Latin American photography and how to participate / enter the art market, were some of the subjects we discussed during the interview that Fotomundo maintained with her.

Interviewer: Silvia Mangialardi

Which are the fundamental aspects considered in evaluating a photograph?First is the Author. If the work is from the 19th century it might be anonymous, but if it is from 20th we should know its author. If the work is from the last few decades it should be signed, if it is not we might have a problem.

Second, is the date of print. We must answer: is it a vintage or a recent print? For example, with Lee Friedlander, a print made in the 70’s has a different value than one made in the 90’s. This makes our work harder every day, because sometimes it is very hard to discover the difference. It was easier to distinguish work of the 30’s and 40’s but from the 80’s to the present, it is more complicated. This is why it is so important that photographers write as much information as possible on each print. In the case of a contemporary photographer who made a picture in 1995 but did not print it until 2003, this must be registered. In the future it will be then known that the print was made close to the time it was taken.

Third, is the how the photographic print should be signed. For example, if is an Ansel Adams, the latest prints should be signed in pencil while the oldest in ink, but they should always be signed, because he always signed his prints unless it was a commercial job. If it were, we would ask why. In other words, we must know what to expect from each author.

Fourth, if it is a  contemporary work, we need to know how many prints were made. Most photographers of the first half of the 20th century, like Cartier-Bresson, did not limit the number of copies they made. Some photographers were very careful like Edward Weston who kept detailed records of the print’s number and thanks to this it is easy to determine how many prints he made of each image. He limited his “editions” to 50, but he never got close to the number in any one photo.

Fifth, the process is also important, especially with contemporary photographers. It does not matter if the picture is taken in digital form. What is important is how it is printed. Is it on archival quality paper? Will the colors keep unaltered overtime if not kept in acclimatized environments? An important consideration here in Buenos Aires because of the humidity I have had problems with my own collection in Miami for not having a controlled environment. All work on paper must be well taken care of.

Is there a rule for photographers to follow so buyers can be sure of what they buy? There is no law, but in New York there was an attempt to have a ‘Letter of Authenticity.” I keep trying to convince the galleries to give a well detailed and complete invoice because these invoices become part of the history of the photograph. That way when someone needs to valuate a work, all the information will be available.

When I work with the archives of someone who has been collecting for ten years, I ask the collector to gather all the receipts. It always helps to call the gallery that sold the photographs to ask for help in the valuation on its verso is not easily accessible unless it is taken out of the frame and many people do not like that.

I always recommend that authors put as much information as possible: when was the picture taken, when was it printed, the number print relative to the total printed, who did the lab work (if the photographer didn’t), the process, etc.  In many cases we only see a signature, and the rest is guess work.

Then, it is about taking the word of the author.

Yes, that is why provenance is so important. If I buy a photograph from someone who bought it directly from the author, this information must be recorded in its history. When a photograph goes to auction, its provenance is typically published. This i part of its authenticity.

The same has been always going on in the world of painting and sculptures, and now that photographs are selling for over a million dollars, as it has happened in the case of one image by Man Ray and one that is presently being offered by Andre kertesz, it is very important to know from where the piece came, to know its complete history , if it has been restored, if has been well kept.

How is the work of a photographer without much history evaluated?

It is among the hardest thing to do, as much in photography as in any other art form. Some times it is just by chance that an artist develops a market (given the premise that he/she is a good artist). A work might be as good as another, but one is better liked by the gallery that offers it in an exhibition, by the art critic who reviews the show, … it is luck. Or perhaps a museum bought a photograph and it is therefore very important that it became part of the collection of a prestigious institution, resulting in a market for work.