The art market grew by 29% in 2021, according to a key report (although some doubt it)

LONDON – International art sales have “recovered strongly” after a year marked by the pandemic, according to the latest annual report Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, released on Tuesday. Sales reached around $65.1 billion, up 29% from a year earlier, the report says – but that overall figure, combining auctions and gallery sales, remains below the estimated peak at $68.2 billion in 2014.

“The market has shown great resilience in the face of continued uncertainty in 2021,” Dublin-based cultural economist Clare McAndrew wrote in the sixth edition of the report, published by the Tuesday. the largest art fair franchise in the world and its main trading partner. She added that the market was “driven by robust growth, particularly in the auction sector, where secondary market sales of high-end artworks provided a significant increase in value”.

The Art Basel & UBS report is considered the most authoritative annual study of the global art market, and its findings are regularly quoted in the media. It is the only comprehensive survey of the international art trade that incorporates both values ​​for public auctions and estimates for confidential dealer sales. Figures for dealers are based on self-reported survey responses from galleries, many of which also exhibit at Art Basel fairs.

According to the 279-page report, overall dealer sales reached approximately $34.7 billion in 2021, 18% higher than a slump in 2020, but still below 2019’s level. the year was in the dealership segment with sales between $5 million and $10 million,” the report states. “The weakest gains were recorded by dealerships with sales of less than $250,000.”

Auction sales also grew in 2021, according to the report, reaching $26.3 billion, up 47% from the previous year and topping sales in 2019. Private auction house sales in 2021 brought in an additional $4.1 billion, according to the report.

Online-only auctions have been key to this recovery: so has the successful use of live streaming by major auction houses for their marquee sales. Although not new, the hybrid online/live format has “improved significantly in terms of production quality and technical efficiency”, according to the report.

China (including Hong Kong) remained the largest market for public auctions, with 33% of the market, slightly ahead of the United States at 32%, followed by Great Britain at 13% (compared to 18% in 2019 ). France made a notable move upwards: Benefiting from the fallout from Brexit, bidding there rose more than 60% to $2.2 billion, taking the country’s global market share to 9%.

Given that online and hybrid auctions have increased throughout 2021, while international art fairs only returned to in-person formats in the second half of the year, some seasoned watchers of the art world were perplexed that Art Basel & UBS reported that dealer sales exceeded auction sales.

“I don’t think the dealers’ turnover was higher,” said Belgian collector Alain Servais, a regular buyer of contemporary art at fairs and auctions. Servais is a longtime critic of what he considers the Art Basel & UBS report’s “finger in the wind” methodology for calculating dealer sales. This year it was based on 774 survey responses, mostly from Europe. Galleries with annual sales of more than $1 million provided 37% of responses.

“The dealer survey is overweighted for larger galleries,” Servais said in an interview. “They like the outcome of the report because it gives a positive view of the art world,” he added.

In an interview, McAndrew, the report’s author, conceded that “more would be better, but it captures a significant share of the market”, adding, “I’m optimistic in the future that there will be better ways to measure things. .”

McAndrew said his report focused on the “traditional infrastructure” of the art trade, although there is a “huge universe of transactions” outside of these structures, with NFT platforms producing “stunning” numbers. . Sales of art-related NFTs grew more than a hundredfold year over year, reaching $2.6 billion. Sales of NFT collectibles reached $8.6 billion, according to the report, using data provided by NonFungible.com.

NFTs entered the auction sector of the traditional art market in 2021, but at “limited values ​​so far”, the report says: Christie’s raised $150 million; Sotheby’s sales reached $80 million.

As the report was completed before February 24, it does not address the war in Ukraine and its possible effect on the art market in 2022.

“We may be facing a very different recession from the corona crisis,” said, Marta Gnypartistic adviser and writer, based in Berlin.

She also pointed to the relatively small sample of merchant data on which the Art Basel & UBS report bases its findings. “These are just guesses and estimates,” Gnyp said in an interview. “But, since the same limited data has been used over the years, it gives us an idea of ​​where the direction is. Good to have it. »

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