Will the Global Art Auction Market Remain Solid This Year?

Jonathan Feel
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Last year, the total amount of auction sales of the world’s three major auction houses decreased by about 19% from the previous year as the adjustment period continued. However, this year’s global auction market is expected to continue a relatively stable sales trend, centering on the scheduled big collection auctions.

Sotheby’s auction scene. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Sotheby’s auction scene. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

According to the “2023 Annual Art Market Report” released by the Korea Art Authentication & Appraisal Research Center (KAAARC), Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips’ total sales amounted to about $11.16 billion in 2023 (including buyer’s premium), down 18.8% from the previous year (total of $13.74 billion). Negative variables such as high interest rates and war seem to have affected it. However, the total sales are about 11.6% higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019.

According to the contents, the total number of auctions and the number of works sold increased, although the total sales decreased. The number of auctions increased from 909 in 2022 to 936 in 2023, and the total number of works sold increased from 108,832 to 114,914. This is the sum of both offline auctions (up about 7.2%) and online-only auctions (up about 5.3%). The average auction price decreased from $126,209 in 2022 to $97,074 in 2023, due to the inverse proportion of the total sales and the total number of works.

This is the result of sluggish sales of high-priced works over $10 million and increased sales of low-priced works under $50,000 such as prints and edition works. Sales of low-priced works increased by about 18% from 108,832 in 2022 to 114,914 last year, and sales increased by about 7.4% from the previous year. 

On the other hand, sales of works over $10 million fell by about 30%. The total sales of the top 100 works in the order of high-priced bids fell from about $4.1 billion in 2022 to about $2.4 billion in 2023. Looking at the ultra-high-priced works, the items sold for more than $100 million in 2023 were Pablo Picasso’s Femme à la montre ($139.4 million) and Gustav Klimt’s Lady With a Fan ($108.5 million). By comparison, six works sold for over $100 million each in 2022.

Pablo Picasso’s Femme à la montre (1932) was the most expensive lot sold at auction in 2023. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Pablo Picasso’s Femme à la montre (1932) was the most expensive lot sold at auction in 2023. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The decline in auction sales in 2023 was notable in the Impressionist and contemporary art sectors, down about 35.9% from the previous year. In particular, sales in the ultra-modern art sector fell about $150 million in a year.

The Korean auction market appeared to have shrunk even further. According to KAAARC’s survey of K-Auction, Seoul Auction, My Art Auction, Kan Auction, and I Auction, a total of 28 auctions were held in 2023, resulting in a total of $95 million, down about 28.62% from the previous year. The number of successfully sold works was 1,973, down about 15.39% from the previous year, and the successful bid rate was about 70.44%, down about 8.13% from the previous year.

However, the trade in Korean painting and ancient art was relatively stable. The successful bid price of these works is concentrated in a rather low price range, but the successful bid rate exceeded about 70% due to the supply of high-quality works and stable and steady demand. About 50% of the works sold for more than $750,000 in 2023 came from the Korean painting and ancient art sectors.

This result seems to be due to a decrease in the demand for high-priced art due to the economic downturn and continued high interest rates. Although interest and demand for Korean art in overseas markets are steadily increasing, the Korean art market shows that the adjustment is deepening.

Regarding this year’s outlook, the recovery of the global art market, which went through a period of adjustment last year, is expected to take time. This is due to continued geopolitical conflicts and tensions caused by wars, as well as the economic downturn. Auction records for the first quarter of 2024 show that the impact of such bad news continues.

Considering the unique characteristics of the resilient art market, KAAARC predicted that the overseas art market will not suffer a significant blow in the sales structure, focusing on big collection auctions scheduled for this year.

On the other hand, the Korean art market does not seem to be in a good position. Given the characteristics of domestic demand, which recognizes the auction results as a barometer of the market, the Korean art market is expected to remain dark. “The structural limitations of the domestic art market, where transactions were made with a few artists, are narrowing the artist’s portfolio during the adjustment period,” KAAARC said. “We can predict that the art market will be even worse from the difficult situation where it is difficult to find artworks worth purchasing.”

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Jonathan Feel
Jonathan Feel

Jonathan Feel is a reporter and editor for Auction Daily in Korea. He has been active in various fields such as the media, social economy, village community, and fair trade coffee industry and is writing. It is recognized that art is not far from society and the times, and that art can be a tool for the sustainability of the Earth and mankind. He hopes that good works and artists in Korea will meet with readers.

김이준수는 한국 주재 옥션데일리 필진이자 편집자이다. 언론, 사회적경제, 마을공동체, 공정무역 커피업계 등 다양한 분야에서 활동했고 글을 쓰고 있다. 예술이 사회·시대와 동떨어져 있지 않으며, 예술이 지구와 인류의 지속가능성을 위한 도구가 될 수 있음을 인식하고 있다. 한국의 좋은 작품과 아티스트를 많이 소개하고 싶다.

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