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Fox Talbot photos sell for record breaking $2 million at Sotheby's birthday sale

Sotheby's
Brunel's ship the SS Great Britain at low tide - shot by Fox Talbot between 1843-45 (Image credit: Sotheby's)

Sothebys set the highest ever price recorded for Victorian photography in its recent auction to celebrate its photographic department's 50th birthday. The collection of images by British photographer William Henry Fox Talbot raised $1,956,000, four times its pre-sale estimate.

The collection contained almost 200 items, including 71 photographs, had been gifted to Fox Talbot's sister Henrietta in the 1840s.  It comprises of some of the earliest images ever taken by the man who invented the first negative process, and who was only just pipped by Frenchman Louis Daguerre to inventing photography itself. 

The collection is comprised of loose photographs, personal albums, fascicles of The Pencil of Nature, and a complete Sun Pictures in Scotland. It is arguably the most important lot of 19th century photographs to have ever come to market.

Many of the lots in the online auction remained unsold however. An early print of Ansel Adams' Moonrise, estimated at $500,00-700,000, was amongst the photographs failing to meet its reserve. 

Emily Bierman, Sotheby’s Head of Photographs in New York, commented, “This record-shattering sale is a true celebration of the birth of photography – the most inventive and beautiful artistic medium of our time.  The fierce competition between bidders in Europe, America, and Asia demonstrates the enormous appetite among a broad base of collectors.  After 50 years of traditional auctions of Photographs at Sotheby’s, bidding on this landmark collection of 19th century photographs was conducted entirely online – a resounding confirmation that we are indeed in a new, exciting, digital era.” 

Fox Talbot

William Henry Fox Talbot 1800 - 1877 d'Apres Nature [Nicolaas Henneman seated with net, and man with basket]  (Image credit: Sotheby's)

William Henry Fox Talbot 1800 - 1877 Cover of The Pencil of Nature  (Image credit: Sotheby's)

Westminster Abbey c1843 by Fox Talbot (Image credit: Sothebys)

Thomas Moore (poet), Horatia Feilding (sister), Ela Theresa Talbot (daughter), Rosamond Constance Talbot (daughter), and Matilda Caroline Talbot (daughter) photographed by Fox Talbot in 1844 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Original story: 14 April 2021  Renown auction house Sotheby's is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its photographic department this week by holding an online auction which will sell off some of the most famous photographs from the first two centuries of photography.

The online auction which is being simultaneously hosted by both the New York and London branches of Sotheby's is now opeen for bidding and will run for 10 days.

The 50 items on sale stretch the full history of photography, from some of the earliest works by the British pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, through to the distinctively-modern portraiture of Chris Levine and Zanele Muholi. Other prominent photographers whose work is available to purchase include Lee Miller, Imogen Cunningham, Sebastiao Salgado, Robert Frank, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Richard Avedon.

The image predicted to cost the most at the sale is a 15x18in early print of Ansel Adams’ iconic 1941 landscape image Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (estimate $500,00-700,000).

Martin Parr b.1952 'The Last Resort', 1983-86 Estimate: £10,000- 15,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Erwin Blumenfeld 1897 - 1969 ‘Solarised Eyes’, 1935 Estimate: £30,000- 50,000  (Image credit: Sothebys)

Peter Lindbergh b. 1944 'The Wild Ones: Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, Helena Christensen, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Karen Mulder & Stephanie Seymour', Brooklyn, for American Vogue, May 1991  Estimate: £40,000- 50,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Gustave Le Gray 1820 - 1884 'La Vague Brisée, Mer Méditeranée No 15', 1857 Estimate: £80,000- 120,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Guy Bourdin 1928-1991 'Mousehole', Charles Jourdan, Autumn 1979 Estimate: £18,000- 25,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Sebastião Salgado b. 1944 'Serra Pelada, Gold Mine, Brazil'  Estimate: US$100,000 - 150,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Imogen Cunningham 1883 - 1976 Triangles Estimate: US$150,000 - 250,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Ansel Adams 1902 - 1984 'Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico' Estimate: US$500,000- 700,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Irving Penn 1917 - 2009 'Harlequin Dress' Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Robert Frank 1924-2019 'Family U. S. 90' (En Route to Del Rio) Estimate: US$400,000 - 600,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Chris Levine b.1960 ‘Lightness of Being’, 2008 Estimate: £30,000 - 50,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

Lee Miller 1907 - 1977 Nude Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000 (Image credit: Sothebys)

“For 50 years Sotheby’s has been at the vanguard of Photographs auctions, continually redefining the criteria against which our market is judged," Emily Bierman, Sotheby’s Head of Photographs in New York .  We are thrilled to present this transatlantic sale – the first of its kind within the Photographs market – as a celebration of the most beautiful and inventive artistic medium of our time."

Brandei Estes, Sotheby’s Head of Photographs in London, adds: “As the first international auction house to hold dedicated sales of Photography, it is remarkable to see how this medium has grown into one of the most dynamic, active markets in the art world. Once considered ephemera that were often lumped into books or prints sales, we’ve seen incredible strides in how the category has developed, from the rise of fashion photography to the emergence of Instagram as the dominant social media platform that has only reinforced the mass appeal of photography and opened a new generation of collectors to the possibilities of the medium".

Full details of the 50 Masterworks to Celebrate 50 Years of Sotheby’s Photographs sale can be seen in the auction catalogues.

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Chris George

Chris George has worked on Digital Camera World since its launch in 2017. He has been writing about photography, mobile phones, video making and technology for over 30 years – and has edited numerous magazines including PhotoPlus, N-Photo, Digital Camera, Video Camera, and Professional Photography. 


His first serious camera was the iconic Olympus OM10, with which he won the title of Young Photographer of the Year - long before the advent of autofocus and memory cards. Today he uses a Nikon D800, a Fujifilm X-T1, a Sony A7, and his iPhone 11 Pro.


He has written about technology for countless publications and websites including The Sunday Times Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, Dorling Kindersley, What Cellphone, T3 and Techradar.