Gursky's Rhine II - small potatoes in an auction house

Andreas Gursky Rhine II

How sharp was your intake of breath when you read the Andreas Gurksy’s Rhine II sold for US $4.3 million (£2.7 million) at auction at Christie’s, New York last week? For most of us $4 million is an obscene amount of money to spend on anything, let alone a photographic print. But baby, this is small potatoes in an auction house. For some people this sort of money is pocket change. When I was 18, I was an intern at a London art dealers. The painting hanging on my office wall was a Renoir worth £6 million. So it got me thinking, how does Gursky’s print compare against a few other things sold at auction?

Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust

Let’s start with the most expensive painting sold at auction. That would be Picasso’s 1932 Nude, Green Leaves and Bust. Like Gursky’s photograph, it was also sold by Christie’s in New York, but in May 2010. The sum it went for was a little more than Gursky’s print, though. An anonymous buyer handed over US $106.5 million for it. Heaven only knows what that dude’s insurance premium would be.

That Picasso isn’t the most expensive painting ever sold, though. That honour goes to a Jackson Pollock, called Number 5, 1948, which David Geffen sold privately to an anonymous buyer in 2006. The precise sum wasn’t disclosed, but it’s widely believed to have been a shudder-inducing US $140 million.

Number 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock

What about a sculpture? Alberto Giacometti’s 1961 L’Homme qui marche I sold at Sotheby’s in London for US $104.3 million in February 2010. At the time, that made it the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction.

Giacometti's L'Homme qui marche I

Laurence Graff left school at 14 and began his career cleaning toilets. He’s now the owner of a diamond mine in South Africa as well as the Graff Pink – a potentially flawless 24.78 carat pink diamond – that he bought for £28.8 million at a Swiss auction house in November 2010. The boy made good.

The same thing couldn’t really be said for the most expensive racehorse sold at auction. The Green Monkey was bought by John Magnier for US 16 million in 2006. He barely saw a racecourse and was retired a maiden. Mr Magnier is well aware that you win some and you lose some, though. That’s just racing.

So in the grand scheme of things, US $4.3 million isn’t that much for a photograph, even if The Guardian did describe it as a sludgy image of desolate, featureless landscape. Ladies and Gentlemen of the photographic profession, we’d better get cracking with our sales.