Art Markets: Is Leibovitz a ‘Picasso’ in our midst?

Annie Leibovitz was a “service brat,” spending her childhood on the go from base to base with her father, an officer in the U. S. Air Force. The camera bug bit her in the Philippines, where her father was stationed during the Vietnam War. When Leibovitz returned to the United States in 1970, she became associated with a young but rapidly rising publication, Rolling Stone. The magazine became the platform for a career that brought her into the orbit of the stars and elevated her into one of the world’s most famous celebrity photographers. Leibovitz was behind the camera for many of Rolling Stone’s trademark cover photos, and her intimate, sympathetic portraits became part of the magazine’s style.

Annie Leibovitz(Photo of Liebovitz herself courtesy, photo by Robert Scoble)

As one of the most recognizable names in celebrity and fashion photography today, and with a roster of clients that includes world leaders, presidents and royalty, Leibovitz’s career and personal life have suffered many recent blows. After years of less-than-frugal spending habits that left her with enormous debt, she also experienced personal emotional hardship after the loss of her parents and of her companion, author Susan Sontag, who died of leukemia in 2004.

In May 2009, Leibovitz (b. 1949) was honored in New York with a life-time achievement award from the International Center of Photography. Acknowledging her outstanding achievements, the 700 invited guests paid tribute to her extensive body of work. From Rolling Stone to Vanity Fair and Vogue, she has captured memorable portraits of actors, directors, writers, musicians, athletes and political and business leaders. In addition to her editorial work, she has launched many award-winning portfolios for advertising campaigns such as the Gap and American Express. An iconic figure to many, her friends and colleagues were no doubt touched by her acceptance speech in which she hinted at her financial troubles by saying, “It means so much to me, especially right now. I’m having some tough times right now.”

The tough times included the $24 million debt to the Art Capital Group, a New York-based company which lends money using art as collateral.

Her fees are rumored to be around several million a year from Conde Nast alone, plus a rumored $250,000 day-rate for advertising clients such as Louis Vuitton. However comfortable her annual earnings, her very comfortable lifestyle put her under water financially. The nanny, personal chef, personal yoga instructor, housekeeper, handyman and gardener as well as frequent trips to Paris and a penchant for buying expensive gifts for her family plus very pricey properties and frequent remodeling projects all added up to a financial agreement with Art Capital in 2008.

In July 2009, Art Capital sued Leibovitz, citing her failure to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars she owed the firm. In August, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. disclosed that they owned part of the $24 million loan that led to the breach of contract lawsuit.

Three days after the Sept. 8 deadline to repay the $24 million loan, a resolution to the lawsuit was announced in a joint statement. Art Capital extended the “maturity date” on the loan and Leibovitz was able to “purchase from Art Capital its rights to act as exclusive agent in the sale of her real property and copyrights.”

Leibovitz has since issued a series of high-priced limited edition print sets of her photographs. She hopes to pay off the debt by leveraging her archive with a Master Set of 157 of her photographs. Ten sets are planned, at a price tag of up to $3.5 million per set. The payback date for the entire loan is in the summer of 2010, and with monthly installments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Leibovitz has a busy year ahead.

Recent auction sales indicate a strong interest in Leibovitz’s work. Last November, at auction in Paris, three vintage silver prints from one lot, Portrait of Bette Midler (1978), sold for $64,495 (hammer). John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1980), printed in 1991, sold in October at Sotheby’s (New York) for $22,500 (hammer).

Leibovitz’s future looks less formidable. As the photographer herself mentioned in her speech at the ICP last spring, lifetime achievement awards suggest honoring the end of a career. “Photography is not something you retire from. Photographers live to a very old age and work until the end.” Citing Steichen and Cartier-Bresson working into their 90s and Irving Penn, 93 and still working (Penn died later in the year), 2010 could mark the beginning of the second half of her long and prosperous career.

Mary Manion is the acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio, Milwaukee. She can be reached at


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