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Arbus Prices Are Getting as Iconic as Some of Her Works

Auction prices for works by Diane Arbus (1923-71) have been rising steadily and a traveling exhibition, “Revelations” —organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (March 8-May 30)—has further boosted demand.

NEW YORK—Auction prices for works by Diane Arbus (1923-71) have been rising steadily and a traveling exhibition, “Revelations” —organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (March 8-May 30)—has further boosted demand.

“The auctions have led the way,” in this price jump, comments Royce Howes, one of the directors of New York’s Robert Miller Gallery, particularly the April sale of the Arbus 1962 image Boy with a Toy Hand Grenade, Central Park, N.Y.C., which at Christie’s fetched $408,000, just above the high estimate of $400,000 (see ANL, 5/10/05).

Works by Arbus fall into two categories, with their own price structures: The first are the “vintage” prints, 11-by-14-inch or 16-by-20-inch images that the artist produced in the darkroom, which range in price from $20,000/45,000 on the low end for less well-known images to half a million dollars for the more famous ones.

The value of these vintage prints is also somewhat dependent on their condition (some have creases and dents) and on the existence of a signature or other writing by Arbus that establishes authenticity and provenance.

In the second category are posthumously printed photographs, sometimes referred to as estate, or Selkirk, prints, a reference to printer Neil Selkirk, with whom Arbus collaborated on a publishing project toward the end of her life. These are printed in the larger, 16-by-20-inch size and start at $3,000, but have reached $120,000 at auction, depending upon the reputation of the image and demand.

The posthumous prints, generally limited to edition sizes of 75, are released with a certificate of authenticity, signed by Arbus’ daughter Doon Arbus, the executor of her estate.

None of the galleries that work with the Arbus estate know how many vintage pictures remain or how many will be released as posthumous editions. Howes speculates that more than 400 editions have been produced so far. No gallery represents the estate, although several work closely with it, particularly the Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, which has “a substantial amount of material,” according to co-owner Frish Brandt, who declined to be more specific.

All Arbus photographs are technically offered to collectors on the secondary market, since the estate sells rather than consigns images to Fraenkel and other galleries. Brandt noted that the posthumous print editions are not produced in their entirety—“I’ve never seen a print numbered higher than five,” she said—but are printed as the demand for them requires.

A number of the artist’s photographs have gained iconic status, becoming her most recognizable images, and these have performed well in the secondary market.

Arbus herself had collected 10 of her works for a boxed set, to be produced in an edition of 50 and printed by Selkirk, and 12 of these sets were published before her death (the rest are posthumously issued).

The highest price for an Arbus work at auction, $553,600, was paid on April 27 at Sotheby’s for one of these sets, outstripping the auctioneer’s estimate of $250,000/350,000.

That price bettered her previous public-sale high, recorded a year before at Sotheby’s, of $478,400 (estimate: $250,000/350,000) for a single image, Identical Twins (Cathleen and Colleen), Roselle, New Jersey, 1967.

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