$65bn in sales: the art market bounces back

The art market last year confirmed a strong recovery from the pandemic, with a return to live sales with steady growth in online business. Aggregate sales of art and antiques by dealers and auction houses reached an estimated $65.1 billion in 2021, up 29 percent from the year before and just above the of $64.4 billion of pre-pandemic 2019.

Sales in the global art market 2009–2021 [source: Arts Economics]

The numbers come from the Art Market Report, widely acknowledged as the best summary available for the sale of artworks through intermediaries (like galleries, auction houses, online platforms). Clare McAndrew has been running this increasingly accurate statistical survey for some years; her consultancy, Arts Economics, currently produces it for Art Basel and UBS – loading it with the ungainly title The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report.

Art Basel obviously has vested interests in the state of the market and clearly can leverage its contacts to add quality to the figures. The UBS connection is also useful, enabling as it does a survey of high net worth collectors through UBS Investor Watch.

As well as the overall $65bn total, we’ve picked out some of the key findings from the recently published report.

International markets

  • The US market retained its leading position, with sales increasing by 33 percent to just over $28 billion. That means it presents 43 percent of worldwide sales, a slight increase.
  • China overtook the UK to become the second largest art market (up by 35 percent at $13.4 billion, giving it a fifth of the global total).
  • Following two years of declining sales, the UK market did rise in value – but not by as much as the other two leaders. A 14 percent year-on-year rise meant it was worth $11.3 billion in 2021, 17 percent of the overall total.
  • France is one of the fastest gainers, increasing in value by 50 percent year-on-year to $4.7 billion – its highest point in 10 years.


  • After a decline of 20 percent in 2020, aggregate sales through dealers were estimated as $34.7 billion in 2021, up by 18 percent year-on-year but still below the 2019 levels – and while a majority of dealers did report an increase in sales, a quarter of them reported a decline.
  • About the same proportion said they were less profitable in 2021 than the year before, with 55 percent declaring themselves more profitable and 21 percent about the same.
  • There’s some evidence that the dealers’ client base is contracting: on average, dealers sold to 50 individual buyers in 2021, down from 55 the previous year and 64 in 2019. But then without the full programme of in-person events and with limitations on travel, there were obviously fewer opportunities to build new relationships with buyers in both 2020 and 2021.


  • In the last few years, dealer sales have been outperforming public auctions; both sectors declined in the crisis of 2020, but in 2021 it was the auctions that showed the strongest year-on-year advance. New buyers and a steady flow of high-quality works coming on to the market enabled public auction sales to hit $26.3 billion, an increase of 47 percent on 2020 (when in-person events were few and far between).
  • Private sales also did well for the auction houses, up by a billion dollars over the year to $4.1 billion, over the $3.1 billion reported for 2020.
  • There was optimism in the auction sector for the coming year, with 81 percent of the second-tier auction houses expecting sales to improve and only 6 percent predicting a decline. 


  • The online market for art continued to expand, but not dramatically – a 7 percent growth in 2021 took it to $13.3 billion.
  • Given the boom in online sales the previous year, this meant online represented 20 percent of the total sales – a 5 percent year-on-year decline, but still more than double the 2019 share.
  • This shouldn’t be too surprising – “the proportion of [online] sales is now on par with other retail sectors, with the pandemic forcing the art market to catch up with other industries”.
Share of online sales in the art market versus general retail 2016–2021 [source: Arts Economics with data from eMarketer.com]

Art fairs

  • Even with a reduced number of fairs and limited capacity in several, sales at art fairs claimed 29 percent of total sales – but that was nowhere near the 43 percent reported in 2019.
  • And dealers were not doing as many events: four fairs per dealer on average in 2019 , three in 2020 (just one live event plus two online viewing rooms), three in 2021 (though the balance reversed, with two in-person fairs and one OVR).
  • Still, two thirds of dealers surveyed reckoned their art fair sales would increase over the next 12 months.


  • Clare McAndrew has counted NFTs for the first time and a substantial, thoughtful section of the report includes an estimate of $2.6 billion in sales for art-related NFTs in 2021 (‘collectibles’ did even better, hitting $8.6 billion).
  • That obviously reflects a boom in the number of players – in 2019, there were around 1,370 buyers and 865 sellers active on the three blockchains sampled for the report (Ethereum, Flow, Ronin). By 2021, there were 130,696 buyers and 84,182 sellers of art NFTs.
  • The volume of transactions on external NFT platforms went through the roof, of course, growing from just over 755,760 in 2019 to 5.5 million in 2021 – not least because of the enthusiasm for flipping: the average time between purchase and resale in art NFTs is just 33 days.
  • The rich like NFTs, too; 74 percent of HNW collectors surveyed by Arts Economics and UBS Investor Watch had purchased art-based NFTs in the year, spending an average of $9,000 per work.
  • There are no signs that the interest in NFTs will abate in 2022 – 88 percent of HNW collectors said they were interested in purchasing NFT-based artworks in future, a mere 4 percent said they weren’t interested at all.

“Structural change”

  • The pandemic was expected to create “a window of opportunity and impetus for change” with much optimism in 2021 about restructuring market hierarchies and innovation in the industry.
  • Many dealers and auction houses have obviously adjusted successfully to a new two-tier online-offline system of sales and events but it’s clear that the digital shift had done little to reduce the market’s hierarchies. “The high end began once again to pull away, with an even denser concentration of value on a small number of artists and businesses” as Clare McAndrew concludes.
  • For instance, just over one third of HNW collectors spent over $1 million on art and antiques in 2021, up from 20 percent in 2020 and more than double the level in 2019.
  • “The success of the high end of the market in 2021 has undoubtedly been due to the increasing wealth of HNWIs … However, the trends to increasing inequality have mixed implications for the art market, and the concentration on fewer artists and businesses leaves it open to risks in its infrastructure and limits its growth.”
  • Interestingly, UBS analysts believe that the continued focus on inequality is likely to see fiscal policies becoming more redistributive over the next decade in the key geographical markets for art. “While this might have negative effects in the short term for both investors and the high end of the art market, these changes could be positive if they boost aggregate economic growth by increasing the spending capacity of the average household, leading to a wider level of spending in the art market and more balanced growth.”
Average change in turnover by dealer sector 2020–2021 [source: Arts Economics]

The Art Market Report is available for free download here.

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