Art collectors move online as pandemic shuts down fairs

Global art sales are expected to get back on track this year if more fairs can open their doors. Keystone / Rhona Wise

Global sales of art and antiques fell by more than a fifth during 2020 to $50.1 billion (CHF46.5 billion). With the cancellation of many art shows, online sales doubled to $12.4 billion, making up a quarter of all sales, according to a report from Swiss bank UBS and research group Art Economics.

This content was published on March 16, 2021 - 11:23

Art Basel, which in 2019 featured $4 billion worth of art, was one of the premiere events that was forced to cancel in 2020. Organisers have postponed this year’s event from June to September as Covid-19 continues.

Of the 365 art fairs scheduled for 2020, 61% have been cancelled, UBS said on TuesdayExternal link. The remainder were able to stage live events, but many of these switched online. Instagram proved to be a popular method of buying art, with around a third of art collectors surveyed by UBS using this social media channel to make purchases.

China overtook the United States last year as the largest geographical market for art auctions, with a share of 36%. China, the US and Britain remain the dominant areas with four out of five auction sales taking place in these three countries. When it comes to total art sales by all channels, the US retained its status as the largest market, followed by China and Britain.


The report found that the appetite of collectors to spend their money on art has not diminished, leading to 58% of art dealers to predict increasing sales this year.

The global art market is “populated by mainly small businesses that rely on discretionary purchasing, travel and personal contact. The fall in sales was inevitable,” said report author Clare MacAndrew.

“But the crisis also provided the impetus for change and restructuring, the most fundamental shift being the rollout of digital strategies and online sales, which had lagged behind other industries up to now.”

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