When you’re ready to buy
Keep in mind that the laws of scarcity, and of supply and demand, influence everything. Beyond that, says Bellows, remember that “you’re not just buying an image, you’re buying an object, an object that, hopefully, the photographer printed, touched and signed.”
The most intimate way to buy photographs is to find a local gallery that carries the kind of photography you like. “Some years ago, in certain cities, a gallery might not have paid much attention to someone just getting interested in collecting,” says Bellows, who’s worked in the photo world for 40 years. “But that’s probably not the case today. We look at this as a long-term relationship, and if somebody walks in looking for a little education, that’s great.” Even if the pictures on the walls aren’t your style, a gallery owner likely has hundreds of other photographs in the back that they can show you. And from then on, they’ll be on the lookout for the kind of pictures you’re interested in.
Ideally, you’ll want your photograph to be signed by the photographer, which goes back to Bellows’ point about owning an object — not just an image — that’s actually been touched by the hand of the photographer. A photograph signed on “verso” means it’s signed on the back; “recto” means the front.
While it won’t take you long to discover the bustling world of online photography auctions, as a newcomer, you’ll probably want to steer clear. For one thing, by only looking online, you sometimes can’t discern any small dings or bends that will decrease a picture’s value. Also, auctions tend to be adrenalin-fueled affairs and, as Bellows says, “When you get caught up in the excitement, you can find yourself pushing the button on your keypad two more times than you’d want to.” Beyond that, the auction house tacks on a “buyer’s premium” (which can sometimes reach 25 percent of your winning bid) as well as a shipping charge. In short, it’s ridiculously easy to spend more than you’ve budgeted.
One great alternative to an auction is the flash sales that Magnum Photos holds every June and October. Five years ago, the 72-year-old photo agency — whose members include many of the finest photographers ever to press a shutter, such as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson — began selling small square prints. These prints are hand-selected and signed by the masters themselves (in cases when the photographer is deceased, the prints come with an official stamp from the photographer’s estate.) “We wanted to involve a younger generation of collectors,” says Sophie Wright, Magnum’s global cultural director. “And we thought this was an affordable way to make photographers like Capa, Elliot Erwitt, Susan Meiselas and Alec Soth accessible to them.”
While the number of prints isn’t limited (as they are in a typical edition), these flash sales last only five days; after that, the print will never again be sold in that size. The cost for this little piece of photographic history? Just $100 unframed. Two other outfits — Photos.com, run by Getty Images, and Lumas — also sell affordable photos for your wall. While these images aren’t likely to increase in value, they’re certainly eye-catching. They’re also an easy way to dip your toe into the water: I know a few people whose enthusiasm for collecting began with a small Magnum print.
As for my beloved little picture of the twirling kids? It sat comfortably in the kitchen for a quarter century, where my own children would go on to speak their first words, learn to criticize their father’s cooking and, eventually, fill out their college applications. And where, one morning not long ago, I happened to be reading a story that featured a photograph with a strangely familiar aesthetic. I Googled around and sure enough: same photographer. Sebastiaan Bremer is now repped by a big-league gallery and his larger works sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Mine likely isn’t worth anything near that and even if it was, it wouldn’t matter: I’m not selling. But it’s nice to know that all those years ago, I picked a winner.