A surprisingly rapid shift online helped cushion the art market from the worst ravages of the coronavirus pandemic although sales still fell by a fifth last year, an Artprice report said Monday.
Artprice, the France-based leader in art market data, said the digital transformation of auctions amounted to a "revolution" in the way fine art is sold after lockdowns forced change on a slow-moving industry.
"It's been a spectacular shift that has gone beyond expectations and despite the reluctance of certain auction houses," said its president Thierry Ehrmann.
Digitisation has opened up auctions to a huge new customer base, particularly 30- and 40-year-olds, who rarely dabbled in the market previously.
They are mostly after contemporary art, Ehrmann told AFP, which accounts for some 16 percent of sales.
Online also means more global, with auction houses in Belgium or Sweden now able to easily tap clients in Singapore or Indonesia.
"The market was 30 years behind the times. It has made up the gap in just one year, when even the most optimistic projections had predicted it would take until 2025," said Ehrmann
- Chinese growth -
China's success in containing the Covid-19 outbreak propelled it back to the top of the sales charts, dominating the market with 39 percent of global fine art sales by value.
The United States, which topped the chart for the previous four years, was on 27 percent, with Britain in third on 16 percent.
That speaks not just to wealthy Chinese collectors, but a booming domestic art scene -- a previous Artprice report from late 2020 showed that 395 of the top 1,000 highest-selling artists are Chinese, compared with just 165 for the US.
Despite Hong Kong coming under stricter Chinese control in recent months, it has remained a major base for global art sales, with Sotheby's doing a quarter of its business there, Artprice said.
Meanwhile, sales in Europe dropped precipitously, with Britain, France and Italy all down by around a third. The exception was Germany, relatively untouched in the first wave of the pandemic, where sales were up 11 percent for the year.
As for individual sales, the highest price was a Francis Bacon triptych sold by Sotheby's for $84.5 million, while graffiti artist Banksy sold the most works -- nearly 900.
Tastes tended towards contemporary figurative paintings, Artprice added, especially from Africans such as Ghana's Amoako Boafo.
In the gloom of the pandemic, "the top-level market remains keen on lively, joyous and audacious figurative paintings" from artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney and French-Chinese painter San Yu.