The Art Market is Facing a Reckoning, Sales Down 18%

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: May 17, 2024

Wealthy art buyers and sellers are stepping away from art auctions after the heightened prices become too much for the market.

While 2021 and 2022 were showstopping years for the art market, with prices blowing projections out of the water, everyone is taking a breather before returning to the market.

Art Sales Are Down

Art auction sales at major art auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips are expected to be down by 18 percent over the next two weeks compared to the total from May 2022, according to ArtTactic (CNBC).

A briefcase filled with $100 bills.

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This dip in sales means that the art market is expected to bring in a total of $1.2 billion.

The Post COVID-19 Boom Settles

This dip in sales is expected as the post-COVID-19 peak has settled. During 2021 and 2022, money went further in the market thanks to the stock market boom and fiscal stimulus.

Shallow Focus Photography of Paintbrush

Source: Daian Gan/Pexels

This increase in revenue helped the art market see record sales. However, this boom didn’t last very long as 2023 crept around the corner.

The Market Falls  

Last year, the global auctions of fine art fell by 27 percent compared to the revenue in 2022. The average price dropped by 32 percent, marking the biggest decline in seven years, according to ArtTactic (CNBC).

A group of people in suits at an auction

Source: CFI

In 2022, auction sales totaled $13.74 billion, but the number dropped in 2023 to $11.16 billion. The total auction sales for this year could be less than 2023’s total.

Buyers Are Eager to Buy Art

This drop in sales does not come from buyers not wanting to buy. Instead, the pain point comes from sellers not wanting to sell their best collections or pieces.

100 US Dollar Banknotes

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Sellers want to sell pieces for what they would have sold for in the 2021-2022 market. Selling for anything less feels like a loss for the sellers.

Sellers Keep Their Best Pieces Off Market

While there is a demand from buyers, auction houses say that collectors are holding back on selling their best art pieces.

A museum with paintings and art on pillars around the room, behind glass walls.

Source: Artur Matosyan/Unsplash

“Sellers want 20 percent more, and buyers want 20 percent less,” Philip Hoffman, CEO of the Fine Art Group, said to CNBC. “There is a stalemate.”


Smaller Offerings This Season

“We’re seeing what people perceive as a smaller offering this season,” said Brooke Lampley, global chairman and head of global fine art at Sotheby’s, told CNBC.

A wide shot of an art auction in Los Angeles, CA

Source: Sothebys

Lampley continued: “The proof is in the pudding. It’s the buyers showing up and what the work will sell for that will define our perception of the art market right now. And I expect the results to be strong.”


The Struggles for Buyers

Today, buyers are not without their struggles. While economies across the world struggle to recover from the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, buyers are demanding discounts due to rising interest rates, an uncertain election year, and geopolitical uncertainty.

Several people raise their hands at an auction

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Buyers do not have the confidence they had two or three years ago to purchase art at the high prices sellers are asking.


Everyone Is Hesitating

Persistent inflation, higher interest rates, fears of a slowing economy, and geopolitical crises are also factors into the reason why sellers are hitting the pause button on any art purchases.

A man looks distressed as he goes over research at his desk

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“People feel hesitant,” said Andrew Fabricant, chief operating officer at Gagosian, the mega-gallery and dealership. “It’s an election year, there is the situation with the Fed, are they going to cut or not. The cost of money is relatively high compared to a few years ago.”


Smaller Offerings This Season

On top of the uncertainty of the market, there are just fewer pieces this year. While spring sales typically offer more than a dozen works averaging $30 million each, there are not that many pieces being offered this spring.

An auctioneer stands at a podium in front of a crowd of auction-goers. A helmet is on display next to the auctioneer’s podium.

Portable Antiquities Scheme/Wikimedia Commons

However, there are a few notable pieces on the auction market that could help boost sales for this auction season.


Best Pieces This Spring

The most expensive work auctioned this season includes Francis Bacon’s 1966 “Portrait of George Dyer Crouching.” This piece is part of a series of 10 famous and monumental portraits of Bacon painted by Dyer between 1966 and 1968.

A close up of the painting "Portrait of George Dyer Crouching"

Source: WikiArt

The piece is selling at Sotheby’s for an estimated $30 million to $50 million. Another collection of four paintings from Joan Mithcell is expected to go for over $15 million.


This Isn’t the Best Season for Art

Despite these expensive art pieces hitting the auction houses, collectors and art advisors say there are few if any “masterpieces” available to create excitement this season.

The entrance of Sotheby's in London

Source: Wikimedia

“They just don’t have the marquis material this season,” Fabricant said. “Unless you have something truly singular and special, I don’t think you’re going to have the same enthusiasm you had in past sales.”