Global art sales drop 5% year-on-year, says Art Basel/UBS report


Global sales of art and antiques fell 5% year-on-year in 2019, to an estimated $64.1bn, according to Art Basel and UBS’s latest edition of The Art Market Report.

The Art Market Report – authored by economist Dr Clare McAndrew, founder of Art Economics – is widely considered by many as the premier benchmark, the definitive source, for the study and analysis of the general art market, art collecting, auction houses, fairs, and online sales.

Data on auction houses was provided by the online register for art and collectibles Artory. Founder and CEO Nanne Dekking said, “It is an honour to act as an asset for this report. Claire’s work represents a gold standard within the industry and the report has really become an invaluable resource for all parties involved in the market.”

This is the first year since 2016 – when sales were at $56.9m and dropped 11% from the year before – that total sales were in decline. However, 2019 comes within spitting distance of 2017, when $63.7bn of sales were notched up.   

Leading the tally this year were dealers and galleries, commanding $36.8bn, who were followed by auction houses at $24.2bn.  

In 2019, the US remained the largest market worldwide, at $28.3bn, pulling 44% of total sales; while the UK accounted for 20% of sales at $12.7bn. China was the third-largest hub with 18% of sales at $11.7bn, but this latter country’s sales have been falling for two years.

All three of the major markets saw a decline in sales year-on-year, however, at 2%, 9% and 10% respectively. France, though much smaller than the top three, was the only major market to see an advance of 7% in value, netting $4.2bn overall.

Devolved Parliament by Banksy. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


Although sales through the gallery and dealer sector grew only 2% year-on-year, to $36.8bn, optimism remains high in this segment. 47% of dealers at the lower end – less than $1m turnover – expected sales to rise, versus 29% in the $10m plus segment.

The representation of female artists by primary market galleries also rose to 44%, with their share of sales now at 40% in 2019.


With a 17% decline from the year before, the total sales of fine and decorative art and antiques through auction houses came in at $24.2bn. Private sales increased, with Christie’s and Sotheby’s accounting for $1.8bn.

Post-War and Contemporary art was the largest sector of the fine art auction market in 2019, with a share of 53% by value. Having said this, the report notes that works valued at over $10m performed the worst, declining 39% in value with 35% fewer lots sold.

Claire McAndrew said: “The auction sector provides one of the main large-scale, international, and publicly available information sources on individual transactions in the art market.”

Art fairs

Dealers reported that, of the $16.6bn worth of art sold through fairs last year, 15% ($2.5bn) took place before the fair, 64% during the fair ($10.6bn) and 21% after the fair ($3.5bn).

Having said this, art fairs did not see a jump in their contribution to total market figures by much, with sales at $16.5bn for 2018. High net worth collectors attended an average of 39 art-related events – including seven art fairs.

Cattelan’s The Comedian at Art Basel Miami 2019.

Online art sales

Online art sales turned heads when the segment set a record-high of $6bn in 2018. But did not achieve similar glory in 2019, with the total figure capped at $5.9bn.

HNW millennial collectors were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most regular users of online sales, at 92%, and 9% of these collectors spent more than $1m.

More than half of those who bought through dealer online sales were new buyers, while the bulk of gallery transactions (77%) connected buyers and sellers who were more than 1,000kms apart.

Online sales are a crucial part of smaller auction houses’ business. But similar trends are being seen in the big auction houses as well, with Sotheby’s hosting eight online sales in 2019 with just one lot per auction, according to Pi-eX’s numbers.  

Many predict that online auctions will see a boost in coming months as the growing threats of the coronavirus keep would-be buyers away from public sales.

Millennials lead the charge

Between 2017 and 2019, UBS Investor Watch and Art Economics surveyed 1,300 active HNW collectors across the UK, the US, Germany, France, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. They had to have spent more than $10,000 on art and collectibles so as to eliminate low-value purchasers.

Despite the drop in overall global sales, millennial collectors (aged 23-38 years with a net worth in excess of $1m) emerged as the biggest spenders by value and volume in the seven markets.

Photo by Anders Kristensen from Pexels

They are estimated to have spent on average $3m on art and collectibles over the past two years. This was more than six times the spending of Baby Boomers (aged 55-74 years).

Further, although smaller in number, the impact of female collectors on spending in the market was larger than that of male ones. 34% of women had spent over $1 million in the last two years versus 25% of men.