Art Market Grew 29% in 2021, Says Key Report (Though Some Doubt It)

LONDON — International art sales “recovered strongly” after a pandemic-blighted year, according to the latest annual Art Basel & UBS Global Art Market Report, published on Tuesday. Sales reached an estimated $65.1 billion, up 29 percent on the previous year, the report says — but that headline figure, combining auction and gallery sales, remains short of the trade’s estimated $68.2 billion peak in 2014.

“The market showed great resilience under continuing uncertainty in 2021,” wrote Clare McAndrew, a Dublin-based cultural economist, in the sixth edition of the report, published Tuesday by the world’s largest art fair franchise and its main corporate partner. She added that the market was “buoyed by robust growth, particularly in the auction sector, where secondary market sales of high-end works of art provided a significant uplift in value.”

The Art Basel & UBS report is regarded as the most authoritative annual study of the global art market, and its findings are routinely cited in the news 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. The figures for dealers are based on self-reported survey responses from galleries, many of whom also exhibit at Art Basel fairs.

According to the 279-page report, aggregate dealer sales rose to an estimated $34.7 billion in 2021, 18 percent up on a crisis-hit 2020, but still below the level of 2019. ​​“The highest rise in values ​​year-on- year was in the segment of dealers with sales of between $5 million and $10 million,” the report says. “The smallest gains were experienced by dealers with turnover of less than $250,000.”

Auction sales also advanced in 2021, according to the report, reaching $26.3 billion, 47 percent up on the previous year and exceeding sales in 2019. Auction houses’ private sales in 2021 contributed a further $4.1 billion, the report says.

Online-only auctions were key to that recovery: So, too, was the major auction houses’ successful use of livestreaming for their marquee sales. Although not new, the hybrid online/live format had “substantially improved in terms of the quality of production and technical efficiency,” according to the report.

China (including Hong Kong) remained the biggest market for public auctions, with 33 percent of the market, slightly ahead of the United States at 32 percent, followed by Britain at 13 percent (down from 18 percent in 2019). France made a notable upward move: Benefiting from the fallout of Brexit, auctions there increased by more than 60 percent to $2.2 billion, raising the country’s global market share to 9 percent.

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

“I don’t believe the turnover of the dealers was bigger,” said the Belgian collector Alain Servais, a regular buyer of contemporary art at both fairs and auctions. Servais is a longstanding critic of what he regards as 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 turnover of more than $1 million a year supplied 37 percent of the responses.

“The dealers’ survey is overweighted to the larger galleries,” Servais said in an interview. “They like the output of the report, because it gives a rosy view of the art world,” he added.

In an interview, McAndrew, the report’s author, conceded that, “More would be better, but it does capture an important chunk of the market,” adding, “I’m optimistic in the future that there will be better ways to measure things .”

McAndrew said her report was focused on the “traditional infrastructure” of the art trade, though there was a “huge universe of transacting” outside those structures, with NFT platforms producing “jaw-dropping” figures. Sales of art-related NFTs increased over a hundredfold year-on-year, reaching $2.6 billion. Sales of NFT collectibles grew to $8.6 billion, says the report, using data supplied by NonFungible.com.

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

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

“We’re maybe facing a recession that’s very different from the corona crisis,” said Marta Gnyp, an art adviser and writer, based in Berlin.

She also pointed out the relatively small sample of dealer data on which the Art Basel & UBS report bases its findings. “It’s all guesses and estimates,” said Gnyp in an interview. “But, since the same limited data have been used over the years, it gives us an idea of ​​the direction. It’s good to have it.”

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