5 Auction Market Takeaways from the First Half of 2017

  • Sotheby’s New York, Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 2017. Courtesy of Sotheby's New York.

The auction market’s half-term report card is in, and it’s getting good grades. Overall auction turnover for the first six months of the year is up 5.3% to $6.9 billion from the same period a year ago, according to a new analysis by Artprice, an art market database. The report showed the market turning a corner after two straight years of first-half drops from 2014’s record high.

Here are five key takeaways:


A market on the mend

After a year marked by broad political and economic uncertainty that weighed on auction house results, the first half of 2017 was marked by several high-profile sales at the very high end of the market, most notably the $110.5 million sale of the painting Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. That activity, the report notes, “suggests a new era of prosperity has begun,” led by resurgent sales in the U.S. and other leading Western art markets. The report also noted the unsold rate for auction lots improved slightly in the first half of the year versus 2016.

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U.S. takes top spot

The U.S. auction market led the recovery, with sales increasing 28% to $2.2 billion in the first six months of the year from the same period in 2016. That rise gives it the largest share of the auction market at 32.4%, ahead of China, last year’s leader. Most of the action was centered in New York City, where the aforementioned Basquiat sale took place, as well as the $57 million sale of La muse endormie, a 1913 cast bronze sculpture by Constantin Brancusi.

“The concentration of the high-end Art Market in New York has allowed the world’s most powerful collectors to compete in one same and unique marketplace,” the report noted. Other major Western art markets, including third- and fourth-place United Kingdom and France, also posted notable increases in auction turnover of 13% and 7%, respectively.

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China corrected

China’s auction market dropped 12% in the first half of the year to $2 billion in turnover, a correction that set it back to second place with 29% of global market share. Artprice attributed the fall to a lower number of lots overall, rather than price contraction, but said the drop in lots offered was consistent across most of the country, including in major art capitals such as Beijing and Hong Kong. Still, the report characterized China’s art market as “relatively stable,” noting continued price appreciation for contemporary artists and a decrease in the unsold rate to 54%, down from a dicey 70% rate in the second half of 2016.

In Taiwan, the auction market set a new record this year, with the June sale of Sanyu’s Vase of Chrysanthemums with Red Ground for $9.4 million at Ravenel International. Australia’s auction market was up 18% and South Korea’s rose by 42%.


Contemporary on the rise

Post-war and contemporary art continued to grow their market shares in the first half of the year, the report noted. In 2000, they represented 8% and 3% of global auction sales, respectively; as of 2017 those respective shares had risen to 21% and 15%. “The $110.5 million paid for [the Basquiat] canvas illustrates a profound change in market attitudes: collectors are now perfectly willing to pay equivalent sums for Contemporary and historical (pre-Contemporary) masterpieces alike.” The report attributes the increasing importance of these sectors to “auction companies’ increasing difficulty in bringing together top quality artworks in the Modern and earlier artistic periods” since the second half of 2015. But over the past 17 years, sales of Old Masters and earlier works have been steadily shrinking.


The secondary market is still a man’s world

The top 10 auction results notched so far in 2017 were all by male artists, and included familiar names such as Gustav Klimt, Francis Bacon, and Pablo Picasso, who appears twice. A longer list of the top 50 artists by turnover in the past six months featured only one woman, the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. That’s despite growing institutional and gallery focus on women artists, especially older women whose art-historical significance is undergoing reevaluation.

Why Old Women Have Replaced Young Men as the Art World’s Darlings


—Anna Louie Sussman

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