Collecting Art During A Global Pandemic

As activity winds down on the art market for the holiday season, it’s time to reflect and take stock of one of the strangest years in recent memory. While finalised end-of-year figures are yet to be published, 2020 has been characterised by art fair cancellations and gallery closures tempered by booming online art sales and growing demand from young first-time buyers.

In a world where social contact has been sharply curtailed, collectors have embraced the online space as a place to discover, view, and purchase artworks. “The 2020 crisis in the art market has very much been an operational crisis — how do you sell art with limited ability to showcase it live ahead of a sale? It is clear that without the internet, the whole auction business would have come to a standstill,” Christine Bourron, chief executive of the art auction market index Pi-eX, told the Financial Times.

Although gallery closures and art fair cancellations have inevitably impacted the overall art market, online sales at top auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips have increased almost five fold from $0.2 billion in 2019 to $0.9 billion in 2020. This gain comes as day sales takings have shrunk back from $4.3 billion in 2019 to $3 billion in 2020. The big auction houses began trialling their live-streamed evening sales over the summer, with Sotheby’s taking $363.2 million over a couple of hours in late June and Christie’s selling $420.9 million shortly afterwards.

Amongst those embracing the shift to online art buying have been the younger, tech-savvy generations, with many making their first forays into the art world from the comfort of their laptops and sofas. According to the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2020 released earlier this month, 82% of new art collectors (those who have been collecting for 3 years or less) purchased art online during 2020 versus just 36% in 2019. For this demographic online auctions can be less intimidating than live sales, taking place in an environment millennials are familiar with as the first generation of digital natives.

Another key driver of art sales for younger and newer collectors over the course of the pandemic has been altruism. 79% of new collectors and 76% of collectors under 35 years old gave supporting artists during this challenging period as an important motivation for buying art. The same held true for 68% of collectors overall. In comparison 58% of all collectors gave investment potential as a key reason for their art purchases. Passion for art still reigned supreme, with 95% citing their passion for art as a driving force behind their collection.

Although it’s too early to have a clear picture of what 2021 will bring, there’s rising optimism that an end to the Covid-19 pandemic is now in sight. Many galleries and art fair organisers will be holding their breaths to see how quickly vaccinations can bring some degree of normality back to the art world.

What is not in doubt is that over the course of 2020 we’ve seen the rapid acceleration of some trends, such as online auctions and virtual exhibitions, which have radically changed the way we explore, view and buy art. Galleries and big art shows will have a place in the post-Covid world, but so will live-streamed auctions and online showrooms. All that remains to be seen is how they will coexist in the years to come.