Key Findings from the Art Basel & UBS Art Market 2021 Report

Art Basel and UBS 2021 report - key findings

23 March, 2021

Art Basel and UBS recently released their annual art market report. Below, we summarise some key findings from the report.


The Global Art Market 2021


Boosted by the pandemic and consequent closure of physical art spaces, online sales of art and antiques reached a record high of $12.4 billion in 2020 -- twice as much as it was the previous year -- and accounted for a record share of 25% of the art market’s value. Despite this, on aggregate, the volume of sales was estimated to have decreased by 23% to $? 31.4 million, which is its lowest level since 2009. The US has retained its leading position, accounting for 42% of global art sales, with Greater China and the UK on par at 20%. 


Focusing on the UK, total sales declined by 22% to $9.9 billion in 2020, but they remain 10% above the previous recession in 2009. While this is positive, the effects of Brexit remain to be evaluated. In December 2020, the final Trade and Cooperation Agreement for the UK’s exit from the EU was signed, and from January 2021, imports into the UK from the EU have been subject to VAT and additional charge. Concerns have arisen from businesses in the art market that trade between the two. The HMRC has already recorded a decrease in imports of art and antiques by one third in 2020 versus 2019. It remains unlikely that London will lose its status as a global hub for top-tier sales; however, some of the lower value, domestic EU art trade may shift to other EU states, with Paris representing an attractive alternative. It will be interesting to watch this play out in the next couple of years. 


Auction Sales


A decline was only observed in public auction sales of fine and decorative art and antiques, which were $17.6 billion in 2020, a drop of 30% compared to 2019. Private auction sales, on the other hand, are estimated to have reached over $3.2 billion in 2020, representing an increase of 20% from 2019. This brings total auction sales to an estimated $20.8 billion, with Greater China, the US and the UK retaining a combined share of 81% of public auction sales by value.


 In terms of the breakdown, sales of over $1 million made up the majority (58%) of the value of offline fine art public auction sales, while the majority of value (67%) of the online-only market consisted of sales between $5,000 and $250,000. This could indicate a hesitancy to complete online transactions for high-value artworks. That said, online channels were the most successful in reaching new buyers in the auction sector, a trend that spanned both top-tier and second-tier houses in 2020. 




As for genre, the largest sector in the fine art public auction market in 2020 was Post-War and Contemporary Art (55%), which along with Modern Art accounted for 81% of the value of sales at fine art auctions. Old Masters represented the smallest segment online in 2020 (accounting for 9% of fine art auction sales by value in 2020).


Looking to 2021, 77% of auction houses expect sales to improve, adopting an optimistic approach.  


Art Fairs


Art fairs were undeniably hit hard by the pandemic. Of 365 art fairs planned for 2020, 61% were forced to cancel, while 37% held live events and the remaining 2% held a hybrid, alternative event. The majority (62%) of art fairs surveyed (138 in total) offered an online viewing room or digital version of their fair, in order to make up for some of the dramatic decline in sales in 2020. 


Despite the number of events being cancelled, it was reported that 41% of HNW collectors purchased a work from an art fair in 2020, while 45% stated that they had made a purchase through a fair’s OVR. 


While collectors still expressed some hesitancy to attend art fairs in the first half of 2021, 68% reported that they would be happy to attend any art fairy by the end of Q3, and over 80% in Q4.


Online Sales


Whereas physical sales plummeted in 2020, due to the pandemic, online sales reached a record high of $12.4 billion, doubling in value from 2019. The share of online sales also increased from 9% of total sales by value in 2019 to 25% in 2020. 



For the first time, the share of e-commerce in the art market has surpassed that of general retail. Dealers showed significant increases in the online component of their sales, with the largest advance by those in the $10-million plus turnover segment (to 47%). Those dealers reported that an average of 32% were to new online buyers, down from 57% in 2019. Most of the online sales were, in effect, to existing clients. In the fine art auction sector, 22% of the lots sold in 2020 were in online-only sales, up twofold since 2019. Indeed, online auctions, followed by gallery OVRs, represented the preferred channels to purchase art by HNW collectors.


Despite the success of online channels, 66% of HNW collectors still preferred attending physical exhibitions, while 22% preferred online and 12% had no preference. 


Undeniably, posting a price with the artworks online was a key to success, with collectors increasingly preferring transparency. On the other hand, one of the main challenges for dealers and auction houses alike is attracting traffic to their websites (and social channels), especially when it comes to converting a larger audience to active buyers. Interestingly, over one third of HNW collectors used Instagram to purchase art in 2020, indicating a necessity to increase investment, time and resources in building presence on this particular channel in the years to come. This is something all art businesses will need to adapt to and improve on to further increase online sales, even after the pandemic.


Undoubtedly, online sales are here to stay. When asked about the future of them, the verdict was nearly unanimous, with 94% of auction houses expecting online sales to increase in the next five years. While art fairs had been the priority for dealers until the end of 2019, online sales became a much bigger focus in 2020 for obvious reasons, and when looking forward to 2021, online sales remain the second highest priority, ahead of art fairs. Rather than being a stand-alone tool, which is not entirely realistic, increasing online presence and sales is the key to enhancing client experience and engaging with a larger audience.  


Visit London Trade Art's online art gallery here, which offers works by well-established contemporary artists and renowned modern artists. 


In Conclusion


To conclude, the art market has faced unprecedented challenges in 2020. Despite this, dealers, auction houses, art fairs and other art businesses have learned to adapt quickly, adopting long-awaited technological advancements at a faster rate than ever before. There, undoubtedly, remain further hurdles ahead; yet, with the vaccination process in place and the approaching sight of a reopening of physical art spaces, we remain hopeful for the years to come. If art businesses can retain their capacity for digital innovation, which they have shown over the past year, then we strongly believe that the art world can come out of this difficult period even more equipped to cater to future art trends, and especially, a new generation of high-tech art collectors. 

Aurelia Clavien

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