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When you think of alternative investment, photographs may not come to mind. But on February 9, at the ACCJ Alternative Investment Subcommittee’s event “An Evening with David Bowie: Passion Investing in Fine Photographs,” CEO and Creative Director of Iconic Images Robin Morgan, an award-winning British journalist and editor-in-chief of London’s The Sunday Times Magazine (1991–2000), made the case. As members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) gathered at the Axis Gallery Symposia in Roppongi, Morgan spoke about his appetite for photography, the business itself, and the road ahead for this form of alternative investment.

“Every picture tells a story,” Morgan said as he described how Iconic Images took root. “I love telling stories, and photographs do that. Why don’t we invest in iconic photography, acquire that which we think is culturally important [and] has a historic significance.”

The business model he said, is very simple: “A negative is like a hit song,” in that every time that song is repurposed or sold there is capital gain.

Rolling off the impressive list of archives that Iconic Images owns—including those of photographers Terry O’Neill and Baron Wolman—Morgan explained that these photographs can be printed, exhibited all over the world, and reproduced on shirts, in books, or in newspapers.

“Wherever we look, there is a business stream, there is a revenue stream.”

Morgan stressed the necessity of respecting the artist. “I’ve always taken the view that, if we go to work with a photographer, dead or alive, it is important to be inclusive and respectful.”

Trust is crucial: “Photographers are generally very suspicious people, they think everyone is trying to rip them off.”

“You need a reputation in the business, and we concentrate very hard on ensuring that reputation,” he said, emphasizing the need to appreciate the photographers, and support them with the company’s business.

Morgan hopes to continue working with galleries in Japan, and with different photographers, as they push back into historic archives.

Opportunities for individual investors, he explained, will continue to rise.

“Photography has gone from 0 to 4 percent of the art market globally in the past 10 years, [and] it’s going to hit 5 percent this year.”

Much of the growth is driven by a burgeoning real estate market, with new buildings that have walls that need to be covered. When choosing art that will fill that empty space, it’s crucial to find something with an emotional tug, Morgan said. “It’s the story that sells them, not just the emotional connection.”

He suggested this is one reason the David Bowie collection has been so popular.

“So many people think that Bowie changed their lives, and they bought his music; but when he died, they bought his prints.”

The trajectory in prices for these investments is the main pull.

Morgan explained that, in terms of competition, there was little or nothing in the same type of business as them. “The major competition in the marketplace for photographers in the past were Getty and Corbis, but they were really only in the download business.”

That business model, he said, has become Kmart for photographers, a completely different business from Iconic Images. Rather than going for quantity and low prices, Iconic Images focuses on quality and cultural value.

(From left) Iconic Images CEO and Creative Director Robin Morgan, ACCJ Alternative Investments Subcommittee Co-Chair Frank Packard,and Iconic Images Managing Director, Asia, Campbell Gunn.

Another revenue stream, he said, is copyright infringement. “All around the world, there are people stealing our copyright, so we have to police it very carefully.” In one case, a well-known hotel stole one of their photographs.

Copyright laws, of course, vary depending on the jurisdiction, and ultimately the artist has the final say on rights.

Maintaining a responsible and trustworthy relationship is a core focus of Iconic Images. “We went to the artists themselves,” Morgan explained, “and we just simply formed joint ventures with them.”

In particular, he expressed his gratitude for their relationship with David Bowie, who approved nearly all of what they asked him to do. This relationship has continued beyond his death, and they are now working with the Bowie estate and hold images that cover his life from the age of 16 to 66.

“If they really want to do anything with licensing the Bowie name that involves images, they have to come to us anyway.”

To protect these images, “everything we do is digitally scanned ,and in a digital scan is a pixel that is a coded message,” Morgan explained, adding that “the pixel itself is the signature.”

These images cannot be reproduced endlessly, he stressed, and generally are printed in an edition of 50, in three sizes, and are all signed, numbered, and certificated by the artists and Iconic Images.

To build a sustainable business, he stressed the need for everything to be digital.

“We knew we could sell fine art photographs, and we could use that cash flow to grow the business,” Morgan said. “Equally important . . . is using that cash flow to digitize everything.”

To support this need, he referenced the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. When the twin towers of the World Trade Center came down, multiple archives stored in the basement were lost. And selling the digital archive is the key to their exit strategy, should they need one.

Morgan’s career in the media industry means he has no problem “building the PR story” when they have exhibitions or are releasing books and other merchandise. In particular, he said, “limited edition books that we do are a very lucrative revenue stream, it’s a growing market.”

Speaking about the appeal of fine photographs, he said it is young people who are intrigued and knowledgeable about many of the artists in the photographs and that “the Internet has democratized culture,” meaning art is more accessible to everyone.

This will ultimately continue to help the value of this form of alternative investment to grow and open new revenue streams.

For Iconic Images, that next growth spurt will come in April, when they launch a website with 42,000 contact sheets sure to spark interest within the creative community.

Maxine Cheyney is a staff writer at The Journal.
Wherever we look, there is a business stream, there is a revenue stream.