The most expensive photograph in the world has an unlikely back story, one strangely distant from the world of high art. Peter Lik’s image Phantom demonstrates the beauty in the natural world and the play of light, but its achievement is beyond visual; the work is also a demonstration of the artist’s business skill.
Phantom was taken in one of Lik’s favourite places to shoot, Antelope Canyon in Arizona. The canyon itself is carved from the natural flow of water, which has rushed through the rock over millions of years. In a subterranean cavern in Antelope Canyon, Lik captured Phantom, a simple and haunting image of a shaft of sunlight in which dust is suspended, mimicking a haunting human figure.
A sister image of Phantom, titled Ghost, portrays the same shot in colour and bears a strong resemblance to the work of Jasper Dalgliesh, entitled Antelope Canyon, which is itself for sale at more accessible price bracket. Clearly the canyon is a favourite with photographers and fine art buyers alike for its fantastic colours and plays on light.
The Power of Nature
Phantom itself was in keeping with Lik’s style, he is known for his landscapes, which for fans and collectors, hold their value in the fact that the capture the essence of a place so well. In fact, many of Lik’s galleries are purposefully located in holiday destinations in order to connect with wealthy travellers keen to take home more than just memories of a great vacation they can connect with a wonderful vacation. Lik himself said: “The purpose of all my photos is to capture the power of nature and convey it in a way that inspires someone to feel passionate and connected to the image.”
But the sale of the most expensive photograph in the world didn’t make headlines for the artistic value of the piece, it was the financial value which got the press talking.
A Mysterious Record
On 9 December 2014 Peter Lik’s company, Lik USA, released a press release stating that a private collector had purchased Phantom for $6.5 million. The sale pushed his work in another league and smashed through the previous record holder, of Andreas Gusky’s Rhein II, which sold for $4.3 million at auction in 2011.
The announcement itself never quite gained the confirmation and clarity Lik’s PR team worked so hard to achieve and to this day the anonymity of the buyer and the art establishment’s lack of recognition for Lik’s work in general have meant that the sale price still has a air of doubt surrounding it.
However, it’s not something that Lik or his fans are losing any sleep over. His work, which is almost always sold through a clever limited edition pricing strategy of 995 prints, increases in price as the edition runs out and buyers are not difficult to find. An image that is initially offered for somewhere in the region of $4,000 at a Lik gallery, will later be listed for $17,500 once 95 per cent of the print run is sold out and the image is classed as ‘Premium Peter Lik’.
The same practice is seen in other limited edition prints from artists, but Lik’s strict adherence to the formula has made him one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, fine art photographer of all time.
Rare and Expensive Beauty
For buyers, the potential of buying into something early and potentially capitalising on its rarity in later years is an attractive concept, even if doubts have emerged over the realistic chance of a high resell price for Lik’s work in particular. But for others, it’s as Lik executive Mr Fatoohi told the New York Times when asked about investment claims on the art: “We tell clients who ask about future values ‘Buy because you love it’. There are no guarantees.”
As with any art purchase, the love for the piece has to come first. But the limited edition nature of a print is doubtless a factor in many art purchasers, whether they’re looking at buying at Lik’s level, or seeking something more accessible, the limited edition nature of art is an important consideration in the purchase, guaranteeing the rarity of the beauty you’re bringing into your home.