Art auction internet economy spells doom for showrooms

With Asia fully emerging from pandemic-era restrictions, high-end sales were up in China and Hong Kong, but there were fewer big-ticket art auctions in Western countries.

A boom in internet sales has boosted the lower end of the art market and could ultimately doom showroom auctions, said the boss of sector-tracker Artprice, which published its annual report Wednesday.

Artprice, a market analysis firm, said there were fewer blockbuster auctions in 2023 compared with the previous year, and the overall turnover of $14.9 billion was down 14%.

But the number of overall transactions hit a record high of 763 000, with “an explosion” at the lower end of the spectrum where there were 423 000 sales of art for under $1 000.

“The market has clearly shifted to the internet, driven by new buyers whose average age has fallen from 63 to 41 (over the last two decades),” Artprice CEO Thierry Ehrmann told AFP.

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He said even traditional auctioneers who suffered from “digital-phobia” for a long time were now competing on the internet. “Showroom auctions are doomed to disappear,” Ehrmann added.

With Asia fully emerging from pandemic-era restrictions, high-end sales were up in China and Hong Kong, but there were fewer big-ticket auctions in Western countries.

The US market remained the leader with $5.2 billion in sales, but that was down 28% since there was no repeat of the huge private collection sales of recent years.

It was followed by China at $4.9 billion and Britain with $1.8 billion, the latter continuing its post-Brexit decline with sales down 15%.

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Indian boom

India showed strong growth, with sales up 76% to a record $152 million. A woman artist, Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), holds its record for a single painting, with “The Story Teller” fetching $7.4 million.

Artprice highlighted the growing appreciation of women artists more generally, with Japan’s Yayoi Kusama among the 10 most valuable artists for the second year running (with sales worth $189.7 million), and high prices for the likes of Joan Mitchell ($112.6 million), Georgia O’Keeffe ($56.2 million) and Louise Bourgeois ($50.2 million).

The number of transactions for women artists has doubled in five years and tripled in 10 years.

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Overall, the artists who generated the most cash were perennial favourites Pablo Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat, followed in third place by China’s Chang Dai-chien (1899-1983).

The bubble around NFTs – the digital certificates used to identify ownership of online artworks – burst in 2022 but managed to stabilise somewhat last year.

NFTs appeared in traditional institutions like the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s organised major sales of digital art.

The most valuable digital artist of the year was Canada’s Dmitri Cherniak, who generated sales of $7.9 million.

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More broadly, modern art (artists born between 1860 and 1919) remained the most popular segment of the market, accounting for 41% of turnover, followed by post-war art (1920-1944) at 25% and contemporary art (after 1945) at 17%.

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