How much top-flight art can the market absorb? That was the question hovering over the auction sector at the beginning of 2022, when Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips were preparing to offer more valuable art than the market had seen in years. The tension was only heightened by tumbling stock markets in the days before the kickoff of New York’s major spring auction season, which boasted more than $2.8 billion worth of art across the Big Three houses. On the heels of these landmark sales, Morgan Stanley collaborated with Artnet News and the Artnet Price Database to survey the state of the auction market for the first five months of each year beginning 2018 through 2022 as illustrated in all charts herein.
An Overview of Auction Market Health
- The grand total generated at auction this year between January and May 20 comes out to $5.7 billion. That just barely exceeds the sector’s previous high-water mark in 2018. (The two sums are separated by a mere $83 million.)
- The sell-through rate—the ratio of lots offered to lots sold—was 73.4 percent, higher than in any other year we examined except 2021. In the wake of the pandemic, auction houses have grown especially conservative about offering works they are sure will find buyers.
- The average price of a work of art sold at auction during this period is $48,670. That’s up a staggering 180 percent from 2020 and 26 percent from 2021—a reflection of pent-up supply of high-priced works that collectors held onto during lockdown.
A Closer Look at Auction Price Bands
- A look at how total sales are distributed across price points can help explain what is driving the market’s growth. The biggest contributor is sales of works priced at $10 million and higher. That upper slice of the market grew almost 50 percent year over year by value.
- Responsible for the spike are blockbuster consignments by the estate of Swiss connoisseurs Thomas and Doris Ammann—which included a $195 million Warhol Marilyn—as well as the late Texas ranch heiress Anne Bass and divorced couple Harry and Linda Macklowe.
- Total sales of art priced $10 million and up in 2022 exceeded the equivalent total in 2018 by almost 12 percent—all the more impressive considering that Christie’s sold the $835 million Rockefeller estate that year.
- One of the biggest changes since 2018 is the volume of works priced at $10,000 and under, which has grown by 43 percent. This spike can be attributed at least in part to auction houses’ rapid adoption of online sales during the pandemic, which made it easier and more cost-effective for them to transact at lower price points in larger numbers.
Examining Auction Regional Differences
- Rarely has a V-shaped recovery been quite as clear as that of the United States auction market. In 2020, total sales plummeted to under $500 million during this time period; two years later, they reached a record $3.4 billion. That’s a jump of more than 700 percent.
- China’s contribution to the global total may appear deceptively small here—the time period under examination, January through May 20, does not include Hong Kong’s major summer auction season.
- Following Brexit, auction sales in the U.K. failed to exceed their 2018 high. The U.K. delivered $907 million during this period, down more than 20 percent from the equivalent period four years ago.
- France, meanwhile, continues to climb. The country generated a record $339.5 million in sales, up 50 percent year over year and a remarkable 189 percent from 2018.
Examining Different Genre Markets at Auction
- The Impressionist and Modern category was neck and neck with the Postwar and Contemporary sector during this period. Impressionist and Modern came out a mere $40 million ahead, with $2.4 billion in total sales. (For purposes of this material, we define Impressionist and Modern as work by artists born between 1821 and 1910 and Postwar and Contemporary as work by artists born between 1911 and 1974.)
- The strength of the Impressionist and Modern category is due in large part to an unusual influx of supply thanks to storied collections like that of Anne Bass, which alone generated $363 million.
- Monet, for example, saw no fewer than five works estimated at more than $35 million each hit the block during the spring auctions in New York. All told, the artist generated $362 million during the period we examined—up from just $129 million in 2021.
- Based on our definitions of Impressionist and Modern and Postwar and Contemporary, the top 10 best-selling artists of this period were split evenly between the two genres—five from each.
- Old Masters (which we define as artists born between 1250 and 1820) generated $301 million, managing to stay ahead of Ultra-Contemporary, which encompasses artists born after 1974 and totaled $246 million. However, with the major Hong Kong sales—where ultra-contemporary artists usually see prices soar—still to come this summer, the Old Masters lead may not hold.
A Closer Look at Ultra-Contemporary Art at Auction
- The Ultra-Contemporary genre is the fastest growing in the auction market by both volume and value. Back in 2018, 1,520 works by artists born after 1974 were sold at auction during the period we examined. This year, that figure jumped by 188 percent, to 4,379.
- The category has seen an even larger jump in value. In 2018, the category was responsible for $43.1 million in sales. That number almost quintupled this year, to $246 million.
- In a sign of growing competitiveness in this genre, the sell-through rate for the category has accelerated sharply. Between 2018 and 2020, it hovered between 60 percent and 65 percent (strong but relatively standard across the market). In the years post lockdown, it has not fallen below 70 percent.
Artnet Price Database: From Michelangelo drawings to Warhol paintings, Le Corbusier chairs to Banksy prints, you will find over 14 million color-illustrated art auction records dating back to 1985. Artnet covers more than 1,800 auction houses and 385,000 artists, and every lot is vetted by Artnet’s team of multilingual specialists. Whether you are appraising a collection, researching an artist’s market history, or pricing an artwork for sale, the Price Database will help you determine the value of art.
Disclosures: This material was published on June 16, 2022 and has been prepared for informational purposes only. Charts and graphs were published by ArtNet News in the Artnet Intelligence Report Spring 2022. The information and data in the material has been obtained from sources outside of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC (“Morgan Stanley”). Morgan Stanley makes no representations or guarantees as to the accuracy or completeness of the information or data from sources outside of Morgan Stanley.
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