According to a report published by London-based art market analytics firm Pi-eX, auction sales are once again at pre-pandemic levels after a tumultuous year of financial strain.
Despite an abrupt shutdown that forced the industry to adapt overnight, data from the second quarter of this year suggests the auction market is back in full force. According to the report, the top three public auction houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips—saw a 405 percent year-over-year increase in sales during the second quarter of 2021 between the months of April and June.
Whereas the houses brought in $900 million during the second quarter of 2020, during the second quarter of this year, they brought in $4.6 billion, slightly exceeding numbers from the same period in 2019. In the second quarter of 2020, these houses weathered the worst year-over-year drop-off since the 2008 financial crisis.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg Markets, Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti said that auction houses struggled in 2020 because “there was very strong demand, but the supply was more challenging.” In other words, art collectors were more reluctant to sell their works during the embattled financial period. Buyers, on the other hand, were likely to go after opportunities to collect during the economic lag.
Now, things have changed. A boost from Asia-based clients fueled the market’s return to its pre-pandemic level. They increased auction sale results in China, boosting them to $1.2 billion this year—a sum that’s up 69 percent from the $734 million generated in the second quarter of 2019.
By comparison, the U.S. failed to bounce back to its 2019 level during 2021’s second quarter, however, with saw a 16 percent drop in sales from the same period in 2019.
In a report on the first half of 2021, Christie’s said Asian buyers accounted for a historic high of 39 percent all bids across fine art and luxury categories, spending $1.04 billion in total. Phillips likewise found success in the region, seeing the highest increase in sales between the second quarters of 2019 and 2021. The 34 percent uptick can be attributed to the London-based house’s collaboration with Chinese auction house Poly for its modern and contemporary art evening sales. This spring, Phillips and Poly made $122 million across four consecutive white-glove sales over the course of a week.
Meanwhile, across sales in all regions, Sotheby’s saw a 16 percent increase in the second quarter of 2021 over the second quarter of 2019. Christie’s, which led by market share in 2019, however, saw its Q2 2021 sales dip by 9 percent.
The second quarter of this year also saw the return of another crucial auction format: the single-owner collection sale, which brings major holdings amassed by the world’s wealthy elite to the open market, often after decades of secrecy. The estate of French advertising tycoon Francis Gross sold his Surrealist works at Christie’s, for example, and luxury footwear mogul Stuart Weitzman parted ways with rare stamps at Sotheby’s. According to the Pi-eX report, these auctions helped boost the houses’ sales by a significant margin, signaling a return of confidence among the art world’s high-profile sellers. The sales generated $489 million in Q2 2021, about five times the amount made in the second quarter of 2020.
A new focus on non-traditional collectible categories, such as crypto art, attracted millennial buyers this year and played a role in the market’s rebound. NFT sales are now a $2.4 billion global market according to a recent Dapp Industry report. Following the $69 million sale of a Beeple work in March, NFTs dominated the first quarter of 2021. The pace of NFT buying slowed between April and June this year, accounting for just $50 million, or around 1 percent of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips’s total sales.