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Gursky photo sets $4.3M auction record

It may look like something that many people could take themselves, but one anonymous bidder found a photograph titled "Rhein II" by artist Andreas Gursky so striking that they were willing to pay more than $4 million for it.

The digital photograph, executed in 1999, set a world auction record for "Most expensive photograph sold at auction" at Christie's in New York on Tuesday. The work exceeded the auction house's expectations to sell in the $2.5 to $3.5 million range.

Francis Outred, Christie's Head of Post War and Contemporary Art Europe, told CBS News that the auction was very competitive, with three bidders on the phone and two in the room.

"This is an image which speaks to everyman on many different levels," Outred explained.

"At its most basic, it is an astounding picture of nature, which has been scaled and detailed to take the viewer right into the scene in the way that artists have strived to do throughout history," he said, adding that not only is Gursky one of the most important artists of today, he's responsible for putting photography in its predominant place in the art world.

According to Christie's, the photograph is the first in an edition of six, four of which are currently included in major international public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. This picture is the largest of the group.

The German artist digitally manipulates his photographs for effect. For "Rhein II," Gursky removed all elements that detracted from the sparse natural scene -- the river and grass embankments.

"There is a particular place with a view over the Rhine which has somehow always fascinated me, but it didn't suffice for a picture as it basically constituted only part of a picture," Gursky said in the book "Shrines and Ornaments: A Look into the Display Cabinet." "I carried this idea for a picture around with me for a year and a half and thought about whether I ought perhaps to change my viewpoint. ... In the end I decided to digitalize the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered me."

Some have questioned whether the photo is a work of art worthy the hefty price tag. An unnamed gallery professional told Wired they thought the price was exorbitant, attributing the high sale price to a new fad where photographers are finding it easier to sell their work in higher-priced fine art markets if they call themselves "artists."

Outred, however, told CBS News that it's not just a matter of rebranding. He believes artistic photography is evolving as an art form, and because of all the innovations, we'll see more multi-million dollar photographs sold at auction.

"Photography has progressed rapidly over the past 170 years, but most dramatically in the last thirty years with the adaptation of large scale, full colour images, so that the masterpieces of today stand up against most of their historical predecessors," he said. "As such, their scale, presentation and concepts make the best works outstanding works of art which stand up against anything in history. In my opinion, this price will come to be seen as extremely reasonable in future."

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