In the art world, timing can be everything. Consider, for instance, the contemporary art auction at Sotheby’s in London on February 7. That evening, Andreas Gursky’s “99 cent II, Diptych,” sold to an unnamed private collector for £1,700,000, or $3,346,456. The price represents a new record for a photo set at auction.

Just think what might have happened if the auction had been held a few weeks later, after the recent steep downturn in the stock market. As we reported last year, investment bankers flush with millions from recent stock market gains have been enthusiastically buying art and other collectables.

While it’s too early yet to see how the recent stock market slide will affect art sales, chances are the market for Gursky and other contemporary photography will hold up. This was the third time in nine months that a print of “99 cent II, Diptych” has exceeded the $2 million mark. In May, 2006, the image sold at a Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction for $2.25 million. Last November, it sold for $2.48 million at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York.

Both those figures were eclipsed by the $2.9 million paid for Edward Steichen’s “The Pond — Moonlight” at a sale at Sotheby’s in New York in February 2006.

Now, however, the Gursky image is at the top of the heap. It is significant the diptych was sold as part of a contemporary art sale, and not at a photography sale. Indeed, the Gursky was the only photographic images sold at the evening sale on February 7. The description of the work in Sotheby’s catalogue compares it stylistically to Jackson Pollock’s all-over technique, Sol Lewitt’s repetitive grids, Donald Judd’s stacks of items as well as Andy Warhol’s thematic interest in consumer goods.
Placed in this broader fine art context, Gursky’s work suddenly transcends the normal valuations of contemporary photography.

“Andreas Gursky’s powerful large scale photographs have quickly informed the way that we view the ‘the fetishism of our material world’ and have immediately become a part of established artistic vocabulary,” the catalogue states. “Executed on a grand scale, his photographs survey the post-Capitalist landscape, searching for the signifiers which define our daily lives.”

In broad terms, bidders who attend contemporary art sales are used to paying far higher prices for pieces than collectors at photography auctions, though in recent years that distinction has been blurring.

Sotheby’s February contemporary art sale in London exceeded $90 million in total, including 12 new artists’ records and 26 individual works topping the $1 million mark.