The Art Market In 2020

2020 was a year like no other, and economies and markets across the globe are still reeling from the impact of the pandemic as we head into 2021. Here we take a look back at how the art world weathered the storms of 2020, as well as looking with optimism towards 2021 and what this year may hold. 

Market Performance Overview

There’s no denying that the art market took a significant hit in 2020 alongside other investment markets. With closures of art fairs and exhibitions the world over, it was galleries took the initial hit. Auction houses soon followed suit, with both Christie’s and Sotheby’s reporting drops of 27% in auction sales in 2020. 

Despite these challenges the art market has bounced back fast and moved quickly to pivot and adapt to radically changed circumstances. Accordingly, sales in the second half of the year were 4.5% higher than the last six months of 2019 according to ArtTactic. The market is now more innovative, more digital, and consequently more accessible to more people. The result is a market that is ready to move forward and likely in a stronger position now to return to strong growth than it was pre-pandemic. 

Online-only art sales began to gather pace over the first half of the year, with particular success over the summer as the leading auction houses devoted more resources to this thriving sales channel. Online sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips between January and August in 2020 rose to $596.7 million from $168.2 million for all of 2019. This, combined with the hopeful return of in person fairs, auctions and gallery sales, looks set to propel the market to even greater heights during 2021. 

Art Fairs Return 

The cancellation of art fairs meant galleries’ sales via this channel were drastically reduced in the first half of 2020, falling to 16% of the market compared to 46% in 2019. Some, such as Art Dubai, are sticking to plans to open as usual in March while others are planning a later return, such as the postponed Art Basel Hong Kong and The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) Maastricht scheduled for the mid-June and the end of May respectively. 

Research shows that collectors are intending to resume travelling to fairs in 2021. According to the Art Basel COVID-19 survey, despite the ongoing restrictions on travel most collectors (82%) are still planning to visit fairs and events in the coming year and a majority (57%) hoped to attend these events both locally and overseas.

Pivoting the Art Fair Experience

While many of the large fairs are planning a return, it still seems early to call whether vaccines will be widely available enough to enable large scale travel. Last year many of the fairs pivoted their offering by creating smaller, more frequent, and more geographically diverse offerings. Fairs such as Copenhagen’s Chart and Nada Miami experimented with smaller scale shows offered through local galleries. With continued uncertainty over the ability to travel these are set to continue and perhaps increase over 2021. 

Already the Brafa Art Fair for Pre-Contemporary art, normally held in Brussels, has planned for its 126 exhibitors show individually in 37 cities in 2021. Frieze Los Angeles is also planning a similar approach. It remains to be seen how many others will follow suit, but there is little doubt that collectors and investors are keen to see what the market has to offer after this most challenging of years.