It’s official: art sales fell in 2015

Annual Tefaf report shows 7% decline in a polarised market tilted toward the one-percent

Clare McAndrew’s annual report on the art market, which has become the go-to data source for art market statistics, records a 7% fall in global fine art sales to $63.8bn in 2015 (2014: $68.2bn). The report, produced for the Tefaf art fair that opens to VIPs on Thursday, takes into account public auction sales and, via an anonymous online survey sent to around 6,000 dealers globally, the more hidden side of the art market. The data isn’t complete—an average 14% of dealers responded, for example—but McAndrew’s report is the most comprehensive information available in a highly opaque arena.

Other findings that chime with last year’s empirical evidence include that most of the art market’s value came out of the post-war, contemporary and Modern markets—though perhaps bringing cheer to Tefaf’s core exhibitors is that the Old Master market grew in volume by a moderate 4% (though sales value fell by 33%).

The polarisation of the best (or at least the priciest) versus the rest continued in 2015. Works that sold for over $1m accounted for 57% of the value of auction sales during the year, while representing only 1% of all transactions. A handful of artists—topped by Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Cy Twombly—are in this one per-cent club.

Total art sales in China—for which auction information was sourced from the research group Art Market Monitor of Artron—fell by 23% to $11.8bn. This meant that, for the first time since 2012, the country slipped to third place, below the United States (here sales were up 4% to their highest total of $27.3bn) and the United Kingdom (sales down 9% to $13.5bn).

McAndrew is not calling a protracted downturn and says “the main reason for the negative growth is that the bigger the market gets, the harder it is to keep growing at as fast a pace.” She says that it is too early to tell what 2016 will bring.

Until this year, McAndrew had produced her figures in euros but has changed to US dollars, the more commonly used currency of the art market. Using an average euro conversion rate for 2015, the total for the art market would be €57.4bn, which is in fact ahead of last year’s total of €51bn. However, the value of the euro against the dollar fell considerably between 2014 and 2015, hence the apparent discrepancy.