In a clear sign of how the top end of the art market is evolving, Sotheby’s has released a new report looking at works of art which sold for more than $1m over the past five years.
Titled Peak Performance, the report covers data from Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips’ auction sales between 2018 and 2022 of Impressionist, Modern and contemporary art, as well as Old Masters. The data is augmented with information from Sotheby’s private sales department. It is the first in a series of “insight reports” being produced for the auction house with the analytics firm ArtTactic; similar surveys of other sectors are due to follow.
Sales of works of art over $1m are highly significant and are a bellwether for the market as a whole: they represented an astonishing 74% of total sales by value for the period surveyed, while only accounting for 4% of the volume.
So what does the report find? Firstly, that the market for works priced above $1m is resilient: data shows that sales bounced back strongly after a slump in 2020, rising 9.5% between 2018 and 2022. Unsurprisingly, the dominant category is Impressionist and Modern art, perhaps more unexpected was the strength of contemporary art in private sales—almost 60% of sales in this category were done so privately, according to Sotheby’s own data (Christie’s and Phillips were not included here). Generally, private sales represent between $1bn and $1.5bn each year.
Nevertheless, the strongest market was at the very top end, works of art which sold for more $20m. These accounted for more than 45% of sales in 2022, and the report underlines the fact, as it puts it simply, that “the rich are growing richer”.
Two trends are very significant: demographic and geographic. In the art trade the rise of Asian collectors has been the big story since just before the pandemic struck, and almost a third (32%) of bidders in the $1m+ category came from Asia in the period under review. And buyers across the world are getting younger: the number of Generation X (born 1965–1980) and Millennial (born 1981–1996) bidders in this category is growing, while the number of Baby Boomers (those born 1946-1963) has declined slightly.
In a round table organised by Sotheby’s to launch the report to its clients and which I moderated, Brooke Lampley, the firm’s head of sales for fine art, talked about how the high-end market has evolved. According to Lampley, the real shift over the past 20 years “has been from thematic collections to broader buying across categories”. This means, she said, that clients will only buy a truly exceptional work—for example Magritte’s L’empire des lumières (1961), which sold for $79.4m in 2022—but that it doesn’t boost the prices of every Magritte. “Clients are seeking the top works, but the top works only, in every category,” she pointed out.
Sotheby’s provided its own data on private sales for the report. David Schrader, the firm’s head of this department, noted that a much higher proportion of $1m+ sales were through his service, although the picture was choppy. Overall, almost 86% of such sales were for works in the $1m+ tranche, but the figures fluctuated from year to year, having peaked in 2020. Looking ahead, he thought the “sweet spot” of sales would be in the $1m to $5m category this year.