How Much Fine Art Sold at Auction in the First Months of 2023?
The art market has always been a lagging indicator of the broader economy.1 But after a prolonged period of exuberance, reality may finally be catching up with it.
- Fine-art sales at auction totaled just under $5 billion between January 1 and May 20, 2023. That represents a 14 percent decrease from the equivalent period in 2022.
- Experts cite higher interest rates, continued inflation, and ongoing turbulence in financial markets as reasons for the dip—but economic jitters aren’t the only factor at play.2
- After 2020, the auction market experienced a spate of unusually exceptional seasons as pent-up material hit the market from the likes of Harry and Linda Macklowe, Thomas and Doris Ammann, and the late Microsoft founder Paul Allen.3
- That post-lockdown exuberance has leveled off. The number of works coming to auction hit a three-year low in the year’s first five months, and the contraction is most extreme on the high end.
What Price Bracket Contracted Most by the Middle of the Year?
The vast majority of the market’s tumble can be attributed to a contraction at the very high end. While plenty of works sold in the seven-figure range, the air became increasingly thin above $10 million.
- Sales of art valued at more than $10 million shrunk 51 percent in the first five months of 2023 compared with the equivalent period in 2022.
- Experts say buyers became more price sensitive at the same time that the extraordinary material offered in the wake of the pandemic lockdown began to dry up.4
- Art in the $100,000-to-$1 million range performed best. Sales in this segment were up 18 percent year over year.
- Sales of works priced between $1 million and $10 million were up 14 percent. This slice of the market received increased attention in light of the dearth of seven- and eight-figure works.
- The most affordable segment— works priced at $10,000 and under— shrunk 12 percent year over year. Many auction houses no longer consider it cost effective to transact at this low level, according to Caroline Sayan, CEO of the advisory firm Cadell North America.
What Category Was the Most Lucrative Midway Through the Year?
Sales contracted in every category in the first five months of 2023—but some were hit harder than others.
- The biggest decline was in the Impressionist and Modern sector, whose sales plummeted by almost 30 percent year over year. The postwar and contemporary category had a slightly smaller dip of 23 percent.
- The ample supply of top-tier ImpMod material in the first half of 2022 proved a hard act to follow. Driven by valuable estates like that of Anne Bass, sales of work by Claude Monet hit a high of $450.8 million in the first six months of last year.5 The Impressionist artist’s work generated just $24 million in the first five months of 2023.6
- Ultra-contemporary art, once the fastest-growing category, took a tumble as the froth surrounding the market for young artists began to dissolve. It shrunk by 26 percent year over year.
- The most stable category is Old Masters, whose revenue declined a comparatively modest 6 percent. It remains one of the smallest markets by dollar value, second only to ultra-contemporary (which covers around two dozen years of artistic production, while Old Masters embraces nearly six centuries).
Which Auction House Came Out on Top in the Year’s First Months?
The Big Three auction houses all felt the squeeze in the first five months of the year.
- Christie’s narrowly beat out Sotheby’s in the race for auction house supremacy, generating $8.9 million more in fine-art sales by mid2023. “They are more competitive than I’ve ever seen them,” said art advisor Caroline Sayan.
- Both houses saw revenue decline in the first five months of the year compared with the equivalent period in 2022. Christie’s was down 23 percent while Sotheby’s was down 20 percent.
- Hardest hit was Phillips, which reported $255 million in art sales, a 29 percent dip year over year, after reaching a record high in 2022.
- Note that these figures do not include private sales and indicate total revenue rather than profit— which means they don’t reveal any erosion of the auction houses’ margins caused by deals they may have struck with consignors.
Which Country’s Art Market Is Leading?
The U.S. strengthened its position as the center of the global art market.
- Fine-art auction sales in the United States reached $2.6 billion in the first five months of 2023, down 25 percent from the equivalent period in 2022 but in line with or above the totals from 2021, 2020, and 2019.
- China’s total sales spiked more than 110 percent during the same period. The increase is due more to a schedule change than a wholesale transformation of the country’s market. Several Chinese auction houses, including Poly International and Yongle Auctions, postponed their 2022 autumn sales to early 2023 in order to comply with government lockdowns, boosting the country’s spring results.7
- The U.K. market continues to feel the impact of Brexit, with sales declining 27 percent.
- France’s dip in fine-art sales, which follows several years of market expansion, is in part a reflection of a change in the Artnet Price Database, which stopped covering 43 French auction houses this spring because of complications with their catalogues.8The U.S. strengthened its position as the center of the global art market.
How Much Art Sold Online in the First Five Months of the Year?
Now that in-person auctions have fully returned, online fine-art sales are hitting a plateau—but they remain far above pre-pandemic levels.
- A total of $155.8 million worth of fine art was sold in online-only sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips, Bonhams, and Artnet Auctions in the first five months of the year. That’s down 5 percent from the equivalent period in 2022 and down 64 percent from 2021, when many high-profile sales had not yet returned to being held in-person.
- • The 2023 total remains more than 300 percent higher than 2019, when online sales generated just $35.5 million in the year’s first five months.9 That’s a sign that the market’s approach to virtual sales has changed for good.
- • As live events retake their central place in the auction ecosystem, the average price of a work of art sold online has declined. It is now $17,794, lower than it has been since 2019. This suggests that collectors remain comfortable transacting regularly online, but at an increasingly lower price point.
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