After a significant drop-off in 2020, the global art market returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, generating $65.1 billion, according to an annual survey published by Art Basel and UBS.
That figure is about $15 billion more than the one reported last year for 2020, and just above the $64 billion reported in 2019.
Economist Clare McAndrew, who authored the report, surveyed several hundred international galleries and more than 2,000 high-net-worth art collectors based in the U.S., the U.K., Asia, and Europe.
The U.S. remains the largest national market in the art trade, occupying 43 percent of the total value share. In second and third place are China and the U.K., which account for 20 and 17 percent, respectively.
The U.S. saw sales increase by 33 percent, to around $28 billion, in 2021. Sales in greater China increased by 35 percent, reaching $13.4 billion.
“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] collectors helped to support demand at the higher end of the market,” McAndrew said in a statement accompanying the report.
Perhaps the most prominent art-market trend of the past year was the NFT boom. Based on McAndrew’s report, it appears that many collectors invested in that trend.
Nearly three-quarters of the collectors surveyed had purchased art-related NFTs in 2021, and NFT sales via online platforms accounted for $2.6 billion. More than half of the collectors surveyed reported an interest in acquiring digital artworks in the next year, with millennials accounting for the majority.
Gallery sales reached $34.7 billion in 2021. That marks an increase in 18 percent from 2020. More than half of the dealers surveyed said their sales increased in 2021, while 26 percent reported a drop in sales compared to the same period in 2020. Thirteen percent of dealers saw sales remain at the same level between 2020 and 2021.
In-person events returned in full force last year, but it appears that art fairs are still not helping dealers quite as much as they used to before the pandemic. Sales made by dealers at art fairs accounted for 29 percent of their annual totals in 2021, according to McAndrew’s report. That number is still a far cry from the 43 percent reported in 2019.
Meanwhile, public auction sales reached $26.3 billion in 2021, an increase of 47 percent from the 2020 total. Private sales at auction houses generated $4.1 billion, up 32 percent from the $3.1 billion reported in 2020. The U.S. and China were the largest markets for public auction sales, with 32 percent and 33 percent shares, respectively.
McAndrew’s report said that online sales continued to grow in 2021. Online sales channels accounted for 20 percent of all dealer sales, reaching $13.3 billion (including sales made via art fair–hosted online viewing rooms). The figure is more than double the figures reported by McAndrew for 2019.
The ongoing global crisis has not deterred the ultra-wealthy from investing in art. The median expenditure by the collectors surveyed in the report nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021, reaching $274,000 last year. That rise is being driven in part by baby-boomer collectors, who, despite buying fewer works than their younger counterparts, had the highest average expenditure overall, at $346,000.