As with all art, photography is subjective. Unlike an oil painting, photographs are rarely unique, usually being one of a series or an edition which can be replicated. The monetary value of art is often less about the image and more about the person and story behind that image. We explore the 5 most expensive images sold in recent years and consider the story behind them.

1. Andreas Gursky: “Rhein II”, 1999

$4,338,500
 Christie’s New York, November 2011

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Sold in November 2011 to an anonymous buyer, this image is the most expensive photograph ever sold. The largest of a set of six images, the photograph is a digitally manipulated representation of the Rhine River. Taken by renowned fine art photographer Andreas Gursky, this minimalist work is designed to depict the river without the objects which usually distract from it. Other photographs by Gursky have commanded high prices at auction, but none as high as the $4.3 paid for Rhein II.

2. Richard Prince ‘Spiritual America’, 1981

$3,973,000 Christie’s New York, May 2014

5-most-expensive-photographs-ever-sold-richard-prince

An audacious and provocative piece of work, Prince’s image of a young Brooke Shields was sold at a contemporary art auction in 2014 for $3.9. The print is one of an edition of 10 and takes inspiration from the Stieglitz image of the same name. Prince was considered an ‘agent provocateur’ of the art world, and this image encapsulates this title.

3. Cindy Sherman: ‘Untitled #96’, 1981

$3,890,500
 Christie’s New York, May 2011

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From Sherman’s celebrated ‘Centrefolds’ series, this photograph was sold by Christie’s for $3.8 in 2011. Sherman’s images were typically untitled, leaving the viewers room to make their own interpretation. Famed for her conceptual portraits, this image is one of many which begs the question ‘who is this and what are they thinking?’.

4. Gilbert & George: ‘For Her Majesty’, 1973

$3,765,276 Christie’s London, June 2008

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An example of the cult of personality in the art world, Gilbert & George present as highly formal in both manner and appearance. Their work was part of an ongoing series of live performances and they themselves were used as ‘living-sculptures’ in their images. For Her Majesty was created during a prolonged period of heavy drinking, selling in London for $3.7.

5. Jeff Wall: ‘Dead Troops Talk’, 1992

$3,666,500 
Christie’s New York, May 2012

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A powerful image which has more to it than meets the eye. Taken in 1992 and sold in 2012, this staged image by Jeff Wall provokes a strong emotional response. Intended as a ‘vision’ to show ‘a dialogue of the dead’, the photograph borrows much from historical paintings, horror movies and war photography to create an unsettling image. It sold for $3.6 and is one of only 3 copies.