Despite many record-breaking sales in 2022, aggregate values in the public auction sector were stagnant, showing a slight dip of 1% to $26.8 billion. With a much fuller auction calendar absorbing supply and some strong sales at the high end of the dealer sector, private sales also declined to just under $3.8 billion. Total sales by auction companies, including both public and private sales, were estimated to have reached $30.6 billion, down by 2% on the previous year ($31.2 billion), but still 46% higher than 2020, and 11% up on pre-pandemic 2019.
The US, China, and the UK remained the dominant auction markets, with a combined share of 76% of public auction sales by value, stable on 2021. The US regained its leading position in 2022 with 37% of sales. The majority of the highest-priced works of art were sold in New York during the year, including 41 of the top 50 lots at fine art auctions. China fell back to second place (26%, down by 7%) and the UK was the third-largest auction market with a stable share of 13%, just ahead of France at 9%.
Despite the stagnant results overall, strength at the top of the market meant that some of the top-tier auction houses reported significant increases in sales values. Including private sales and other revenue streams, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips posted a record high in their combined annual revenues of $17.7 billion. Considering public auctions only, sales at these three houses rose 11% in 2022, the second year of growth following a 70% uplift in 2021.
In the fine art auction market, works selling for more than $1 million accounted for 60% of the value of sales in just 1% of lots sold, with 32% from works sold for over $10 million. While virtually all other price segments experienced a drop in value year-on-year in 2022, sales of works priced over $10 million increased by 12% despite a smaller number of lots sold, revealing an increasingly thin but strongly performing high end.
In the period from 2009 to 2022, the $10 million-plus segment grew in value by close to 700% while the lower end (works priced at less than $50,000) saw a much more moderate increase of 10%. If these figures were adjusted for inflation, while the highest end still grew to more than five times its size over the period, sales below $50,000 declined in value.
The share of online-only sales at top-tier and mid-tier houses declined in 2022. At Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, these accounted for 7% of total public auction sales, down by 4% year-on-year but still higher than in 2019 (2%). However, considering all sales, live and online, online bidding has evolved from a minority alternative to the dominant method of accessing sales, accounting for 91% of bids at Sotheby’s and 75% at Christie’s in 2022. Across all fine art auctions, including mid-tier and other auction houses, online-only lots made up 20% of transactions in 2022, double the number in 2019, but their share by value was considerably lower at 3%.
Post-War and Contemporary art was the largest sector of the fine art auction market in 2022, accounting for 54% of the value of global fine art auction sales (down by 4% on 2021). Aggregated sales in the sector totaled $7.8 billion – a decline of 8% year-on-year from a peak in 2021. While sales within this sector saw a double-digit decline in 2020, the recovery in 2021 was stronger for the newer segments. Contemporary art (artists born after 1945) and works created in the last 20 years both doubled in value, driven in part by strong sales of ultra-contemporary artists. However, in 2022, the older segment of Post-War art was more successful, with values up by 3%, versus declines of 26% for Contemporary art and 17% for works created in the last 20 years.
Modern art was the second-largest sector in the fine art auction market in 2022, accounting for a stable 22% of sales by value. Modern art sales posted a strong recovery in 2021, but growth was not sustained in 2022 and values fell by 8% year-on-year, reverting to their pre-pandemic 2019 level of $3.1 billion.
Although considerably smaller in size than the newer fine art sectors, sales of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art showed the strongest performance at auction in 2022. Sales increased by 25% year-on-year to reach $2.6 billion and included several of the highest-priced auction lots of the year.
European Old Masters maintained growth in 2022, with sales increasing by 14% year-on-year to $574 million, bringing the market to its highest level since 2017. However, the cancellation of sales in China dragged down values in the wider Old Masters sector, with sales values falling by 17% year-on-year, leaving the market just below 2020 levels at $963 million.