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Buyer beware: Treat Peter Lik photo sale with scepticism

The art world is full of ridiculous egos.

Peter Lik's claims to be the "world's most influential fine art photographer" and "one of the most important artists of the 21st century" follow a fine tradition of male bluster.

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The most expensive photo ever sold

Melbourne-born photographer Peter Lik has his own adventure TV show and has now sold the most expensive photograph of all time.

Equally extravagant is the purported $US6.5 million ($7.85m) price paid for Phantom, his photo of a shaft of light in the Arizona landscape.

Both claims should be treated with caution.

Two years ago, Fairfax Media reported Lik's claim to have sold a photograph for $US1 million, which was then the highest price paid for work by an Australian photographer and one of the most expensive photos ever sold.

Now he is claiming, with no verification by his US lawyer, to have flogged another photo for more than the world's leading photographers command.


Dubious? Let's consider the facts.

The work was sold privately to an unknown buyer and no documentary proof beyond a press release of the sale appears to have been provided.

Lik's work has been ignored by major public art galleries and dismissed by critics.

When his photos have gone up for public auction, they have not sold well. Australia's most famous photographer Bill Henson sells for nowhere near Lik's astronomical prices.

As art consultant David Hulme said in 2012: "If I was advising a client on a $1 million art purchase, I would be extremely wary of purchasing a Peter Lik photograph, however good it is. This is because Peter Lik's photographs have no secondary market presence or value."

Lik is not the only Australian artist to make wild claims about selling works. Again, in 2012, Fairfax Media reported that a Gold Coast property entrepreneur claimed to have paid $5.2 million on a painting called Points of View by a little-known artist from Newcastle, Sharon Davson.

If true, Davson's painting would have been the second most expensive Australian canvas ever sold after Sidney Nolan's First-Class Marksman, which sold for $5.4 million at auction in 2010.

Veteran art dealer Denis Savill summed up the prevailing view at the time: "There's no chance in a hundred bloody million. That's a fairy story."

It is not entirely impossible that Lik pocketed the millions of dollars he claims for Phantom. His sales staff are apparently very good at singing his praises and he has galleries in places like Las Vegas, where there is more money than sense.

The art market is also prone to the same extravagance and irrationality as housing prices and the share market. Extraordinary prices have been paid for contemporary art at auction this year.

But Lik's $US6.5 million price tag is so improbable as to require proof beyond mere assertion in a press release.

Perhaps the US tax authorities will be able to verify whether this sale occurred given they must have a keen interest in the income tax payable on this multi-million dollar transaction.

Andrew Taylor is Fairfax Media's Arts writer.

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