Art Market Soars to $65.1 Billion in 2021, According to Art Basel UBS Report

  • March 30, 2022 10:55

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Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. © Art Basel
Courtesy Art Basel

Last year saw a strong recovery of the art market with a gradual return to live sales and events that had previously closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, while online sales continued to grow, according to the sixth edition of The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report. Written by cultural economist Dr. Clare McAndrew, founder of Arts Economics, and published by Art Basel and UBS, The Art Market 2022 presents the results of a comprehensive and macro-level analysis of the global art market in 2021, which rose 29% percent from 2020 to an estimated $65.1 billion for the year.

Dr. Clare McAndrew © Art Basel
Courtesy Art Basel

The 2021 figures still lag behind the highest art market total at an estimated $68.2 billion peak in 2014, notes the New York Times. Citing the report's methodology (using a large proportion of data from top-tier European art dealers), Scott Reyburn writes that "some seasoned art world observers were perplexed that Art Basel & UBS reported that dealer sales exceeded auctions."

McAndrew noted: "The art market has demonstrated incredible resilience in 2021, with a strong uplift in aggregate sales, despite still operating under some very challenging conditions. Dealers and auction houses successfully adjusted to a new two-tier system of online and offline sales and events, and the rising wealth of the high-net-worth (HNW) collectors helped to support demand at the higher end of the market. The rapid advance in online sales has been a key finding over the last two years, allowing more sales and more continuous access to an expanding global audience, including many new collectors in 2021. However, as the market gained momentum again, we have seen that the break in schedules and shift to digital has done little to restructure the market’s hierarchies, and the high end began once again to pull away, with an even denser concentration of value on a small number of artists and businesses."

Cheim and Read, Art Basel in Basel, 2021. © Art Basel
Courtesy Art Basel

Key findings of The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report include:

Global Sales: Following its biggest fall in sales in 10 years in 2020, the global art market recovered strongly in 2021, with aggregate sales of art and antiques by dealers and auction houses reaching an estimated $65.1 billion, up 29% from 2020, with values also surpassing pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

Leading Markets: The US market retained its leading position, shifting up slightly to 43% of worldwide sales by value. The Chinese art market was the second largest art market with 20%, while the UK slipped back to third place and 17%. The US art market recovered robustly in 2021, with sales increasing by 33% to just over $28.0 billion. Sales in Greater China also saw a significant uplift of 35% reaching $13.4 billion and pushing ahead of the UK market in the global ranks. Following two years of declining sales in 2019 and 2020, the UK market After a drop of over 30% in 2020, sales in France had a particularly strong uplift in 2021, increasing in value by 50% year-on-year to $4.7 billion, bringing the market to its highest point in 10 years.

Sean Kelly at Art Basel Miami Beach 2021. © Art Basel
Courtesy Art Basel

Dealer Figures: After a decline of 20% in 2020, aggregate sales reached an estimated $34.7 billion in 2021, increasing 18% year-on-year but still below the level of 2019. Across all dealers, a majority (61%) reported an increase in sales values year-on-year from 2020, 13% were stable, and 26% experienced a decline. The highest rise in values year-on-year was in the segment of dealers with sales between $5 million and $10 million (35%), while smaller dealers (with turnover less than $250,000) experienced the smallest gains (6%). Across all dealers, 55% were more profitable than in 2020, 21% were about the same, and 24% were less profitable.

Matthew Marks Gallery at Art Basel Miami Beach 2021. © Art Basel
Courtesy Art Basel

Auction Figures: Sales at public auction of fine and decorative art and antiques (excluding auction house private sales) reached an estimated $26.3 billion in 2021, an increase of 47% on 2020 driven by the supply of high-quality works coming onto the market, as well as an influx of new buyers. Private sales continued to flourish, with an estimated rise of 32% reaching close to $4.1 billion, over the $3.1 billion reported for 2020. The US, China, and the UK, which retained a dominant share of 78% of public auction sales by value, remained the largest international auction market hubs. China was the largest market for public auction sales with a 33% share — down by 3% year-on-year and only marginally ahead of the US at 32%. Notably, France saw a strong uplift of just over 60% reaching $2.2 billion, 28% higher than pre-pandemic 2019 and bringing the market’s global share up from 6% to 9%.

NFTs: Outside the global art market’s turnover of $65.1 billion, sales of NFTs boomed on NFT platforms. The value of sales for art-related NFTs taking place outside of the art market expanded over hundred-fold in 2021 year-on-year reaching $2.6 billion, with even greater growth in collectibles, to $8.6 billion. NFT sales also entered the traditional art market’s auction sector in 2021, but at limited values thus far. Christie’s NFT sales totaled $150 million, including the landmark sale of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021) for $69.3 million in March. Sotheby’s NFT sales reached $80 million in 2021.

Online Sales: The online market continued to expand, growing by a more moderate 7% in 2021 to reach an estimated $13.3 billion. The share accounted for by online sales in 2021 was 20% of total sales, down 5% in share year-on year but still more than double the level of 2019 (9%). In 2020, dealers in the $10 million-plus segment more than tripled their online sales from a 9% share in 2019 to 47% in 2020. However, in 2021 this was rebalanced as fairs offered opportunities for sales. If art fair OVRs are included, online sales in this segment fell by 25% to 22% online, while the next largest segment of dealers (with sales between $1 million and $10 million) also saw a decrease of 13%. Top-tier auction houses continued to introduce new formats and invested substantially in the quality and delivery of live-streamed and online-only auction platforms – the former producing some of the most successful live sales of the year – enabling a more continuous, year-round schedule rather than the traditional seasonal cycle of sales.

Art Fairs: In 2021, as the fair calendar resumed, even with a reduced number of fairs and limited capacity in some, art fair sales advanced to 29% (including OVRs), up 7% in share year-on-year, but still nowhere close to the 43% reported in 2019. With the slow return to the full schedule of events and continuing focus on cost concerns, the number of art fairs at which dealers exhibited in 2021 was still below pre-pandemic levels. Dealers reported averaging four art fair exhibitions in 2019 and this fell to three in 2020, but these included just one live event and two OVRs. In 2021, the average remained at three, but the ratio turned in favor again to live events, with two in-person fairs and one OVR. Looking ahead, the majority of dealers surveyed (65%) predicted their art fair sales would increase over the next 12 months, 11% were unsure, and only 9% expected a decline. 

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