Once upon a time, the art world was dominated by the rich and famous. You wouldn’t see them there, but they’d be the ones snapping up all the best pieces.
It’s old hat to hear about another billionaire charity purchasing art for their collection. But with new museum openings happening at an unprecedented rate, the art world is scrambling for all the best pieces to showcase in their own galleries.
Sales at fine art auctions jumped by 18 percent in the first half of the year compared to the same period in 2017 to US$8.45 billion, according to Artprice, an online art pricing database.
The company’s founder Thierry Ehrmann pointed out that “around three-quarters of purchases above one million dollars is now by museums”, a large proportion of which are new museums, some of which were opened as part of China’s current boom.
“More new museums have been opened since 2000 than all of the 19th and 20th centuries,” said Ehrmann. “And 700 are being founded each year in China.”
How’s that for a staggering stat?
The new openings have kept China in second place in terms of auction revenues at US$2 billion, according to Artprice’s twice-yearly market report.
The United States remain as leaders in auction sales in the first half of the year with US$3.3 billion, or 40 percent of the market. The United Kingdom ranked third with US$1.9 billion in sales and a market share of 22 percent.
Despite museums being the current big buyers, the market was significantly buoyed this year by the charitable sale of Peggy and David Rockefeller’s art collection.
Although there was no blockbuster sale like that of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ last November for US$450 million, the Rockefeller collection was the most valuable private collection ever sold. It included works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.
“The sale of May 8, 2018 alone, totaled US$646 million,” Artprice noted in its report, with a Picasso ‘Blue Period’ painting, ‘Fillette a la corbeille fleurie’, fetching US$115 million all by itself.”
Artprice pointed to a particular strength of the US market: the concentration of sales of the most expensive artworks that fetch more than US$5 million at auction.
“New York is home to the largest high-end art market in the world: the top six first-half results were hammered in Manhattan”, said the report.
Of the 15 works that have fetched more than US$100 million at auction, all but one were sold in New York.
On the horizon, London’s place in the global art market appears to be holding up against Britain’s impending exit from the European Union next year.
“The English capital continues to compete with New York on the high-end market, especially for major European signatures,” said Artprice, noting London remains the top marketplace for works by Gerhard Richter, the “most successful living artist on the global art market”.
The city also remains a top venue for auctions of works by Picasso, which alone accounted for 17 percent of fine art turnover in Britain in the first half of the year.
In China, auction sales slid by seven percent. The first half of the year is not the best season in China, with the most prestigious sales taking place in Beijing in December.
The Chinese market could also become more attractive to sellers as a reorganisation appears to be helping bring down the rate of unsold works, which are still more than half of those put up at auction.