The Pond-Moonlight by Edward Steichen, taken in Mamaroneck, Westchester County in 1904, broke the world record price for a photograph when it was sold for more than $2.9m (£1.67m) at a two-day Sotheby's sale which began in New York last night. The previous record for a photograph at auction, $1,248,000, was set in November by Richard Prince's "Untitled (Cowboy)".Steichen's 42cm by 40cm photograph, from the collection of the wealthy American industrialist Howard Gilman, is a dreamy, moonlit landscape with reflections of trees in a pond. As an image it is rather beautiful, bearing the impressionistic quality of early photography; an experiment exploring the limits of the photographic plate.
Its fame reflects just how much the value of rare, early prints has increased. Steichen's work is sought after by private collectors - this is the kind of landscape that usually only museums can acquire.Only three prints of this photograph are known to exist. Two were held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, which acquired the Gilman collection in 2005, and one of these is the one sold by Sotheby's. The third is in the Museum of Modern Art. So the Met has sold what is, in effect, a duplicate, making the final auction price all the more astonishing.The three prints were made under Steichen's supervision, and are a great example of a rare vintage photograph by an artist who had an influence on later 20th-century photographers such as Richard Avedon, whose work is also represented in the sale. Steichen's early painterly photographs, possibly naive to our image-soaked modern eyes, helped establish photography as an art form.· Roger Tooth is the Guardian's head of photography