In November 2022, Christie’s evening sale of Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen’s esteemed fine art collection brought in more than $1.5 billion, making it at the time the most lucrative single-owner auction ever, and a fitting capstone to a historic year in the global auction market. Within the trade, 2022 may be remembered as a year defined by blockbuster single-owner sales of fine art. Combined with the usual string of traditional evening sales held by Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips worldwide (defined as the three auction houses’ regularly scheduled seasonal evening auctions with the highest-priced fine art lots), these premier single-owner sales supplied the market with a steady stream of top-tier artworks from season to season and region to region. Buyers appeared to respond again and again, helping to insulate the fine art auction market against the tremors created by a bear market for stocks in the U.S. and other macroeconomic challenges abroad.
After a year of historic sales, Morgan Stanley collaborated with Artnet News and the Artnet Price Database to survey the state of the global fine art auction market on an annual basis from 2018 through 2022, as illustrated in all charts herein.
Examining Single-Owner Evening Auction Sales
- At Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, single-owner evening sales of fine art in 2022 rose to nearly $2.7 billion, a five-year high.
- That figure more than doubled the roughly $1.3 billion worth of fine art that changed hands in single-owner sales in 2018, when Christie’s evening auction of the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection achieved $646 million to become (for a time) the most expensive single-owner collection ever. (Christie’s full series of Rockefeller sales, including daytime auctions, ultimately brought $835.1 million. In comparison, adding the daytime auction of works from the Allen collection onto the evening sale total increased Christie’s total sales of the Allen collection to $1.6 billion.)
- Also notable is the narrowing delta between fine art sales in traditional evening auctions and fine art sales in single-owner evening sales during the post-pandemic era. Although single-owner evening sales in 2021 made slightly less ($1.30 billion) than in 2018 ($1.32 billion), the 2021 sum made up about 7 percent of all sales of fine art in single-owner and traditional evening auctions combined that same year ($5.7 billion). In 2018, single-owner evening sales made up only 20.7 percent of the combined total ($6.4 billion).
- This trend accelerated significantly in 2022, as sales of fine art in single-owner evening auctions made up 8 percent of the $7.3 billion achieved in single-owner and traditional evening sales combined at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. (The chart below shows the top five single-owner evening auctions in each year, except for pandemic-challenged 2020, when only two qualifying single-owner evening sales of fine art were held.)
Notable Single-Owner Evening Auctions, 2018–2022
Examining Auction Market Health
- Total sales of fine art reached $15.9 billion in 2022, a roughly four percent decline from the $16.4 billion sold in 2021 but still the second highest annual total since 2018. That’s noteworthy, since the five-year sample includes two pre-pandemic years and two post-pandemic years bookending an anomalous 2020.
- Lots sold and sell-through rate both followed a similar pattern to total sales: just under 367,000 fine art lots (5 percent of those offered) found a buyer in 2022, a modest year-over-year decrease that still easily outshined three of the four previous years.
- Average sale price deviated from this template, rising from $43,118 in 2021 to $43,473 in 2022. The increase is likely explained by the unusually high number of trophy lots to reach the auction block in 2022, as the major auction houses secured the consignment of numerous high-value estates, some of which were sold in single-owner evening auctions.
Examining Auction Price Bands
- In 2022, auction sales of fine artworks priced at more than $10 million each soared to their highest total in five years, missing the $5 billion mark by less than $14 million.
- The growth at the top of the fine art auction market can be traced back to the slew of star-studded single-owner sales, headlined by the aforementioned $1.5 billion collection of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen at Christie’s New York in November. Bolstering that white glove (i.e., 100 percent sold by lot) evening auction were works by Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne that all found buyers at prices above $100 million Trophy works from the collections of sibling art dealers Thomas and Doris Ammann (also at Christie’s), as well as divorced couple Linda and Harry Macklowe at Sotheby’s, all added to the blockbuster results.
- In fact, total sales of trophy lots in 2022 were more than $1 billion higher than in 2018, the year that the Peggy and David Rockefeller estate at Christie’s set a then-record for the most expensive single-owner evening sale of all time, at $646 million.
- Perhaps not surprisingly, then, fine art lots sold for more than $10 million were alone in charting gains in 2022, as all four less expensive price bands declined year-over-year by between 3 percent and 7.7 percent apiece.
Total Fine Art Sales (USD) by Price Band
Examining Auction Regional Differences
- Total sales of fine art in the U.S. rose sharply in 2022 to $7.9 billion, a nearly 25 percent increase year-over-year, and the nation’s highest total in a half decade, fueled in large part by New York’s hosting all five top single-owner auctions by total sales.
- Sales in China, however, plummeted to $2.7 billion, a 43 percent drop from the nearly $4.7 billion generated at auction in 2021.
- While the third-place U.K. tallied a modest year-over-year increase to $2.1 billion in fine art auction sales, that figure was still significantly below its totals in 2018 ($2.8 billion) and 2019 ($2.2 billion).
- France’s fine art auction market also took a step back from the big gains it posted in 2021, as the country’s auction houses brought in just shy of $1.1 billion in sales in 2022, a year-over-year decline of roughly 2 percent.
Examining Different Genre Markets at Auction
- After three years of finishing behind the Postwar and Contemporary genre, Impressionist and Modern works outperformed all others in 2022, generating more than $6.4 billion worth of sales. (For purposes of this material, we define Impressionist and Modern as work by artists born between 1821 and 1910 and Postwar and Contemporary as work by artists born between 1911 and 1974.)
- The 20 percent year-over-year growth in Impressionist and Modern sales in 2022 came courtesy of more than just the prized works from the genre in Paul Allen’s collection. Other high-flying, long sought-after pieces to reach the auction block included Piet Mondrian’s from ($51 million), and Pablo Picasso’s ($37.1 million), both from the collection of entertainment attorney David Solinger at Sotheby’s.
- Despite finishing in second place in 2022, Postwar and Contemporary sales still nearly reached the five-year high they achieved in 2021. Total sales in the genre in 2022 were almost $5.9 billion, just about $158 million lower than in 2021.
- Sales of Old Masters (which we define as artists born between 1250 and 1820) continued a two-year rise: the $785.3 million worth of sales generated in 2022 represented the genre’s best performance in the past five years.
- In contrast, the rapid ascent of the Ultra-Contemporary genre (which we define as artists born after 1974) reversed its trajectory. Sales reached only $668.2 million in 2022, a roughly 10 percent decline from the $741.4 million achieved in 2021, and the only time in the past half-decade that Ultra-Contemporary lots have generated lower sales than in the preceding year. The genre’s year-over-year decrease in sales should not be surprising, as the level of speculative investment in young, unproven artists at auction tends to fall during less buoyant cycles in the larger economy.
A Closer Look at the Performance of Ultra-Contemporary Art