PRINT April 2003


NOW THAT THE MORE iconic images from Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” series, 1977–80, routinely go for six figures at auction, it is perhaps worth recalling that as late as 1988, almost a decade after they first beguiled a young generation of critics and dealers, most of the sixty-nine black-and-white photographs were available for $2,000 to $3,000 at Metro Pictures, the New York gallery that has represented the artist since 1980. Not that prices for Sherman’s seminal images hadn’t climbed over the years; when pictures from the series were first exhibited in New York City, in group shows at Artists Space and The Kitchen, Sherman famously sold the grainy prints for as little as $50.

But even a decade later, major collectors were slow to purchase the plentiful “Stills,” which were issued in editions of three large-format gelatin-silver prints and ten small-format eight-by-tens. A notable exception was billionaire builder Eli Broad, who bought about twenty “Untitled Film Stills” early in the decade, all for between $100 and $500. “The whole reason they remained available was because Cindy had done them before she became known,” says Helene Winer, a cofounder of Metro Pictures. “We never showed them, so people just assumed that they were gone.”

Prices for the fleshy, Rabelaisian canvases of Sherman’s peers were already marching toward the high six figures they would momentarily command in the closing moments of the decade. And big, lush color prints by photographers, including those by Sherman herself, were staking out ground in the contemporary-art market, where they might sell for $30,000 or more.

Prices for different images in the series diverged. When “Untitled Film Stills” began to appear at contemporary-art auctions in the late ’80s and early ’90s, they were estimated at between $8,000 and $12,000, according to Amy Cappellazzo, the International Specialist Head for Contemporary Art at Christie’s. “By the early ’90s they were consistently at auction, but not the best ones, and they weren’t reaching the highest prices,” she says. “The moment the consciousness of the Cindy Sherman market changed was the moment the Museum of Modern Art bought the entire collection of ‘Untitled Film Stills’ for a million dollars.”

That purchase, at what works out to be roughly $13,000 to $14,000 a print, occurred in December 1995, and also included seven later Sherman works in color. “She had decided to keep one set, for what we thought would be her ‘retirement years’ or something, and then decided it would be really good to have it in a public collection, a wonderful collection, obviously, and that’s the only reason we suggested it,” says Winer. “It would have cost them more image by image, with what we could see was already happening.”

“By the early ’90s, with the ‘Film Stills’ in particular, you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see how significant the work was,” says Peter Galassi, chief curator of the Modern’s Department of Photography. “She had a complete set of these things, and part of the notion was that this was—I mean, there are individual pictures that are great, but as a whole it was a work of art that was greater than the sum of its parts.”

Not surprisingly, MoMA’s purchase served to further canonize the once “subversive” stills, and the effect was immediately apparent at the auction houses. “If you look back at the records, they’d estimate them at $15,000 to $20,000, but they’d routinely sell for $30,000, so there was this idea that if you estimated them low they’d reach these great high prices,” says Cappellazzo.

Almost overnight, the tortoise was revealed to be a hare. “Untitled Film Stills” now sell for between $50,000 and $150,000 at auction, exceeding their estimates more often than not. Untitled Film Still #48, 1979—one of the more emblematic images in the series, a blond girl waiting with a suitcase by the side of a country road—sold at Christie’s for $200,500 in 1999, and $336,000, a record for Sherman, in 2001.

Metro Pictures never sold all its “Untitled Film Stills” and has even bought a few back over the years. “We still have some,” says Winer. “They’re the least known, the least representative of the images, which we sell for around $20,000 to $25,000.”

Daniel B. Schneider is a New York–based writer.