The art market’s high end has slowed, artnet finds in new report

After decades of affluent buyers seeking out contemporary works and auction houses accommodating their preferences, a slump has begun, artnet’s executive editor said.

Trophy art — pieces valued at $10 million or more — may no longer perch atop such a high pedestal, according to a new report.

The total auction sales in this upper echelons of the market shrunk by 35% from the first half of 2019, as compared to that period last year, according to a report released Tuesday by artnet, which publishes price data and a news wire focused on the art world. The $10 million-and-up sector amassed the least in total sales since 2016, the report said.

The research, which tracks the field’s growth from generating $3.3 billion in auction sales in 1989 to $19.4 billion in 2018, says the sector is now experiencing some consolidation: in 2012, artnet tracked 632 auction houses and 90,275 artists; in 2018 it monitored 534 houses and 71,621 artists.

After decades of affluent buyers increasingly seeking out contemporary work and auction houses accommodating their preferences, a slump has begun, according to Julia Halperin, artnet’s executive editor, who wrote parts of the report.

"This is really the first season where the high-priced work, the sales of those have dropped off. So it feels more like the beginning of the dip than the end," Halperin said. "I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be like a post-2008 thing, where it demolishes all aspects of the market…"

The average price of a work sold in the first half of 2019 fell to $46,281, a 28 percent decline from the same period last year, artnet noted. More pieces are hitting auctions, but garnering less because there are fewer expensive outliers to skew the average.

"Those kinds of numbers will be fewer and farther between," Halperin said, noting that the prospect of such deals is difficult to predict because they often emerge from competition over various pieces. "You just need two crazy people, and that’s it, for works to hit the stratosphere." 

Correction: A prior version of this article mischaracterized artnet’s publications. 

Sarina Trangle