Artnet counts just under $14 billion art auction sales in 2023

Art Basel Hong Kong in 2023 – the fair’s largest edition since 2019

Artnet’s Intelligence Report – aka The Year Ahead 2024 – makes for an interesting counterpoint to the Art Basel / UBS Art Market Report we surveyed last week. It doesn’t attempt to do the same thing, notably because Artnet concentrates on auction houses; the Art Market Report aims for a comprehensive survey that also includes galleries and other channels like the NFT marketplaces. But even if you aren’t an auction house customer, Artnet has still produced an engaging read.

There are interviews in the ‘five questions …’ format for three movers ‘n’ shakers, from Paris, LA and Hong Kong. The extended section on ‘Understanding Regional Differences in the Globalized Art Market‘ produced with Morgan Stanley is exhaustive, even if it does feel a little like a heap of data looking for some meaning. And the best essay is another multipager, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, where Artnet News senior reporter Katya Kazakina explores legal developments and the increasing theatricality of the auction market (“some of the moves, like the new language on reserves, are hard to spot. Others, like Sotheby’s new fee structure, are broadcast with a megaphone”).

Data-wise, there are good lists of auction bestsellers in several categories. Headline points: Basquiat fever continues apace, the ultra-contemporary category (artists born after 1970) is being boosted by resurgent interest from Hong Kong. Photography remains flat – two Cindy Sherman film stills on the top 10 list, for example, sold for $971,691 and $693,000, while other examples of her work have sold for as much as $3 million. And the big bucks were to be found among Old Masters and the Impressionist/Modernist category, albeit for works that have rarely been to the salerooms – absence makes the wallet grow fatter.

So to the top-line results from the 462 auction houses worldwide that Artnet polled during 2023: fine art sales at auction totalled just under $14 billion in 2023, down 12.7 percent year over year.

That’s markedly different to the Art Market Report figure, which had total auction sales (public and private) at $28.9 billion, down 5% year on year. Artnet does count fine art separately from ‘collectables’ like watches, but even adding $4.4bn there doesn’t get its total auction-house business to $20bn. We couldn’t really see why there was such a contrast – where did Clare McAndrew find those extra sales? – so we’re assuming it’s a matter of definitions (it’s not clear for instance how buy-ins are counted).

Both reports agree the volume of transactions rose during the year, which Artnet noted combined with a decline in high-priced work to drive down the average price of art sold at auction.

Artnet says the dip in sale value reflects “a perfect storm of factors” – interest-rate hikes, geopolitical uncertainty, and a wobbly stock market. The Art Market Report concurred with that.

Artnet reports a total of $440.3 million worth of online sales at auction houses for fine art – that’s at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips, Bonhams, and its own Artnet Auctions. (The Art Market of course takes a much broader view of online sales, recording $11.8 billion in 2023 – up 7% from the year before, though below the post-pandemic peak of $13.3 billion in 2021.)

The Artnet Intelligence Report is available as a free download here.

Sotheby’s marquee evening sales have become streaming productions worthy of a major broadcasting company

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