Art market shrank 22% in pandemic year, study finds

Global sales of art and antiques in 2020 are estimated to have declined by 22% from the previous year, according to the latest annual report Art Basel and UBS Art Market report, published Tuesday.

The 359-page report, the most comprehensive analysis of the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the international art trade to date, found that the combined sales of dealers and auction houses totaled 50 , $ 1 billion, their lowest level since the financial crisis of 2009.

With the postponement of art fairs and the closure of galleries, dealer sales fell 20% overall, to $ 29.3 billion, in 2020, while public auctions, many of which were conducted in online-only formats were down 30% to $ 17.6 billion. According to the report, private transactions at auction houses increased 36% to $ 3.2 billion.

“It could have been a lot worse than before,” said economist Clare McAndrew, author of the report, which was compiled from publicly available data from auction houses and estimates based on responses to the survey of 1,715 art and antique dealers.

“The second half of the year has been better for a lot of people,” McAndrew said in an interview. “There has been a huge shift towards online sales and some galleries in Asia have come back very strong. “

The report notes that the number of billionaires increased by 7% in 2020, with the wealth they held increasing by 32% during the year. “On the purchasing side, there were a lot of people with a lot of time and money, and there weren’t a lot of outlets for their spending,” McAndrew said.

The report found that online sales of art and antiques peaked at an estimated $ 12.4 billion in 2020, double the previous year, accounting for 25% of the market’s value.

The tectonic plates of the art trade also changed during the 2020 pandemic, according to the report. The United States remained the largest market overall, with $ 21.3 billion in combined auction and dealer sales, followed by China, which the report defines as including mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. . Being able to lift coronavirus-related restrictions earlier than Western economies has helped China return to second place, with $ 10 billion in sales, overtaking Britain at $ 9.9 billion. China has also emerged as the world’s largest auction center, with $ 6.3 billion.

The report, co-commissioned by Art Basel, one of the the biggest organizers of art fairs in the world, said 61% of the 365 shows planned for 2020 have been canceled, but the majority of those deleted events offered either online viewing rooms or another digital alternative. As a result, dealers reported making 22% of their annual sales from fairs, including online viewing rooms, about half the percentage they took from fairs in 2019.

Thaddaeus Ropac, a contemporary art dealer with galleries in London, Paris and Salzburg, Austria, said: “We do not sell major works online at art fairs. “

For online viewing rooms, he said, “We have presented works by a few young artists for people we don’t know. “

But during the pandemic, Ropac said he noticed a new willingness among his established customers to buy high-value works that they had not seen in person. Next month, Ropac plans to release a series of major new works by the German painter Georg Baselitz in his Salzburg gallery, each priced at around 1.2 million euros, or $ 1.4 million.

“90% of them will be sold to people who haven’t seen the paintings,” Ropac said. He estimated that his dealership’s sales fell about 25 percent last year, but he managed to maintain a workforce of more than 100 employees.

Although the Art Basel and UBS report contains little specific data on gallery closures, it estimated that employment in the art market fell by 5% in 2020, including “significant drops” in some of the cities. upscale auction houses.

With many countries experiencing new outbreaks of coronavirus infections, McAndrew, the author of the report, said she did not expect the art trade to return soon to something akin to the normal.

“I see this as another year of transition. Nobody expected it to last so long, ”she said, noting that many government-backed measures to support employers would expire this year. “I suspect we might see more struggling businesses.”

But speaking of transition, what has she done with the latest fad in the market, for non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, which peaked last week with a JPG by digital artist Beeple sold for a record of $ 69.3 million at Christie’s?

According to McAndrew, this sale would be included in the Art Basel and UBS 2021 report, but its current methodology did not include NFT-specific selling platforms such as Nifty Gateway and Open Sea, where other works by Beeple have sold. up to $ 6.6 million. .

“NFT interests me in the future,” said McAndrew. “Are my $ 50 billion going down a bit?” And is the activity outside going to be even greater?

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