What Auction Data Tells Us About Artist Trends

Nov 7, 2022

Art auctions and auction data is one of the best ways that art insiders understand the changing fortunes. When you comb over the results, you can see how artworks performed against their estimates, and how the prices of artists and movements have changed over time. That all proves to be fascinating information that any collector would love to learn.

The information is often open to anybody who cares to look, and it is relevant to all kinds of collectors — whether you are buying art at auction or not. The trends that you can pick up in this data goes far beyond to every corner of the market. If we look over recent auction data from 2021 and 2022, we can see that in some ways the art world is radically changing.

A dive into the numbers gives us an interesting picture, and it allows us to make some prognoses that might help us collect into the future.

The Rise and Fall of NFTs

As we’ve covered before, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) were a major buzzword throughout 2021. And there was an enormous amount of hype behind them. Almost all of that hype was kickstarted by a jaw dropping auction figure — Beeple’s $69 million price tag for a single NFT at Christie’s.

After that, the years-long slow build of NFT popularity skyrocketed into full mania. But by the middle of 2022, the love affair seemed to crest. Beeple, for his part, was hacked and his followers lost about half a million dollars worth of cryptocurrency and NFTs. And that kind of summed up what happened to the entire trend: what seemed like a new major media proved to be as much a scam as a real prospect.

It turned out that many NFT artists had learned how to artificially pump up the price of their NFTs by anonymously selling it back to themselves at ever higher costs. This can all be clearly seen in the much more languid pace of NFTs at auction in 2022. Christie’s NFT sales this summer totaled a measly $1.6 million, a fraction of a single Beeple work a little more than a year earlier.

Auctions are showing us that the slow down of NFT sales (tied also to so called “crypto winter”) is likely a very real phenomenon. In many ways, the mainstream craze of art NFTs began with an auction, and it seems that it is here we are seeing the clearest evidence of their demise. At least for now.....

2022 Has Been a Great Year (So Far)

The early months of 2022 proved to be a gangbusters time for the auction houses. From January 1st to May 20th, the art market matched its previously high point for the period in 2018. Both periods raked in about $5.7 billion.

What’s interesting to note is that the first half of 2022 saw more lots offered and sold than the first half of 2018. That might seem like a bad sign, with more art selling for the same amount. But in many ways, that shows that there is simply more action in the auction world. And there is a very optimistic number in there: 73.4 percent of lots offered found their way to a buyer. That’s an incredibly high number, especially compared to recent years.

This good news might show the way to a healthy second half of the year and a strong 2023. At the very least, it reminds us how ready collectors were to get back into the action after 2020.

The Impressionist and Modern Comeback

For many years, the Impressionist and Modern category (including artists born between 1821 and 1910) absolutely dominated at auction houses. It’s easy to see why. This includes peerless artists and important movements, with work still being young enough to have a little movement and prices not totally beyond the pale as with old masters.

But the craze was bound to hit a major wall. After all, there isn’t any new Impressionist and Modern art being made, and eventually it was substantially locked up. By 2019, much of what was left didn’t live up to the kinds of work selling only a few years earlier. And in fact, that year saw the once proud category fall by almost a third.

It was expected that Postwar and Contemporary (defined by artists born from 1911 to 1974) would fill its shoes. But we’ve seen it more or less tie with Impressionist and Modern starting in 2019. That continues into 2022. So what is on the rise?

Ultra-Contemporary Work Is Growing

Ultra-Contemporary Art includes anything made by an artist born after 1974. And this is a section that’s massively increased in size over the last three years. It has seen more work going up at auction and the average sale price increasing, too. For a little perspective, the Ultra-Contemporary category increased five-fold in value since just 2018.

If this trend continues, it could prove to have some good legs. Buying contemporary art matches a major trend among Millennial and Gen-Z collectors — focusing less on name equity and more on unique perspectives and a closer relationship to the work of art. Ultra-Contemporary is still a tiny fraction of the big categories (Impressionist and Modern, Postwar and Contemporary), but it has powerful allies. The growing Asian market, particularly Hong Kong, often pays comparably high prices for Ultra-Contemporary. That could keep boosting these works for years.

Looking Ahead by Looking Backwards

Seeing the future by looking at auctions is one of the best ways to see large trends, particularly at the commanding heights of the art world. But it is important to end with a caveat. The vast majority of the art market does not take place at auction houses like Sotheby’s. It happens in galleries, art fairs, and websites large and small.

If you overemphasize the importance of the major money players at the top, you can lose sight of the vast and healthy world of art that goes on everywhere else. With that said, auctions provide rich data that every collector should be aware of.

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