Art market

The world auction market for fine art has contracted sharply from August 2002 to July 2003, according to statistics just published in Britain and France

Volume and values are down, as are the number of lots valued at £1 million+ being sold


The world auction market for fine art contracted sharply over the last 12 months, according to figures just published in Britain and France.

The sorry story is substantially the same at both the British Art Sales Index and the French Artprice, although their results differ slightly.

The figures cover the period 1 August 2002 to 31 July 2003. Art Sales Index recorded sales of $2.32 billion (£1.45 billion), based on results from 424 auction houses, a drop from $2.34 billion (£1.79 billion) in 2001/02. The number of lots sold also dropped, from 139,574 in 2001/02 to 123,4761.

Somewhat inexplicably, Artprice, which draws on a much larger base of 2,900 auction houses, is even gloomier and reports a smaller total of $2.29 billion, for 156,513 lots actually sold (it adds the interesting information that another 88,706 lots were offered but remained unsold)2. Neither company could offer any reason for the different findings.

The £1 million club also weakened substantially in 2002/03: 149 works were sold for over £1 million, representing £363 million, a slide from the 186 works which made £522 million in the previous exercise. Nothing came anywhere near last year’s sensational sale of Rubens’s “Massacre of the innocents” for £49.5 million: the highest honour so far this year is another Old Master, Mantegna’s “Descent into limbo” which made $26.4 million at Sotheby’s New York in January.

As for sales by country, Artprice and ASI are almost in agreement as far as 2002/2003 is concerned. Artprice divides up the cake thus: 42% US, 28% UK, 10% France, while ASI records 42% US, 30% UK, 9% France.

However, Artprice has much better news for Europe in a recent analysis of the first six months of this year: the US and the UK were neck-and-neck, both with market shares close to 36%. Last July, London actually beat New York on turnover. Artprice puts this down to a disastrous slide in the number of sales in the US.

These figures do not necessarily mean the market is weaker, and the auction houses will tell you that their problem is getting the art for sale, not selling it. But with both interest rates low and stock exchanges volatile, many collectors are hanging onto their art. What else would they put their money into?

1 Art Sales Index records sales of paintings over £250/$400/E400; sculpture and miniatures over £1,000/$1,500/E1,500; prints and photographs over £2,000/$3,000/ E3,000.

2 Artprice records all sales of fine art without a price threshold.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Statistics confirm slide'