Art market has climbed above pre-pandemic level, major study says

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Art market has climbed above pre-pandemic level, major study says
Installation view of Art Basel, Hong Kong, 2023.

by Scott Reyburn

LONDON.- Worldwide art and antiques sales reached an estimated $67.8 billion in 2022, up 3% compared with a year earlier, lifting the market higher than its pre-pandemic level in 2019, according to the annual Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report published Tuesday.

The report said that although the high end of the market was the “driver of growth,” auction houses and dealers trading in lower value items experienced less demand.

The reported growth was also far lower than the year-on-year increase of 31% that the same survey calculated in 2021, when the art trade bounced back from the cancellations and restrictions caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

“Results were more mixed in 2022,” the report said, adding, “Variations in performance by sector, region and price segments” produced “more muted growth.”

According to Claire McAndrew, a Dublin-based economist who wrote the report, “People thought it would be back to normal in 2022, but the market is markedly different.”

“The high end has rocketed away. It has squeezed the bottom end,” she said in an interview.

In her report, McAndrew cited the economic effects of the war in Ukraine, which blighted sales at lower price levels, and China’s strict “zero-COVID” policies as the key drags on art market growth in 2022.

The annual report, first produced by the Swiss-based art fair Art Basel and the UBS bank in 2017, is the only comprehensive overview of the art trade’s sales that combines publicly available data on auctions with estimates of private dealer transactions. The dealer estimates were based on survey responses from more than 1,300 out of a global total of about 300,000 businesses in the industry. In previous years, experts have questioned whether authoritative figures can be reliably extrapolated from such a relatively small sample.

The report for 2022 said dealer sales climbed to an estimated $37.2 billion, a 7% increase from the previous year, but public and private sales at auction houses were down 2%, at $30.6 billion. Despite record-breaking sales at the biggest houses, such as the Paul G. Allen Collection blockbuster at Christie’s, which grossed $1.6 billion, and a 12% increase in sales of works priced more than $10 million, the report said that “virtually all other price segments experienced a drop.”

In the dealer sector, surveys indicated that galleries with a turnover of more than $10 million saw the biggest sales increases, rising 19%. By contrast, the report said the smallest businesses “struggled with price-conscious and cautious buyers, rocketing costs and more stagnant sales.”

On average, dealers generated 35% of their sales at art fairs in 2022, down from 42% in 2019, when there were 408 such in-person events worldwide. In 2022, the number shrank to 346.

“People are doing more online sales and they’re being more selective about fairs,” McAndrew said. “Some of the smaller, less contemporary fairs have closed.”

The United States saw the “most robust” recovery of all the major art markets in 2022, rising 8%, to $30.2 billion, a record. Business was buoyed by $10 billion of auction sales, including several prestigious single-owner collections, with 41 of the world’s 50 most expensive fine art lots being sold in New York, according to the report.

As a result, the United States remains the dominant force in the market, with 45% of the world’s art sales by value, up from 43% the previous year. China’s global share slipped back to 17%, returning Britain to second place, at 18%. France maintained a stable share of 7%, in fourth place.

The speculative trade in art-related NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, regarded by many as a democratizing force in an elitist art world, was another sector that contracted in 2022, the report said. After soaring to a high of almost $2.9 billion in 2021, sales on specialist NFT platforms declined to just under $1.5 billion, according to the report.

The report noted, however, that although art-related NFT sales had declined 49% year-on-year, they were still more than 70 times higher than they were in 2020.

Robert Norton, CEO of Verisart, a London-based company providing services in the blockchain sector, said the contraction in NFT sales should be taken in context. “While the market has significantly contracted from the 2021 highs,” he noted, “the genie of digital collectibles is very much out of the bottle.”

Although the Art Basel and UBS report showed that global art trade sales has essentially flatlined since 2011, when the market recovered from the financial crisis, it noted that the number of billionaires and the scale of their wealth has grown significantly, reaching a peak of 2,657 billionaires with a combined $13.6 trillion in 2021. But art market sales have not grown in step with billionaire wealth.

“We’re still dealing with a limited marketplace,” McAndrew said. “There are a lot more billionaires, but they’re not all spending their money on art.”

“The high end keeps the market going,” she added. “But if everything was growing, the market would expand much more.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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