Art Market

What the Economy Means for Collectors Looking to Sell

Arun Kakar
Dec 6, 2022 10:45PM
Nicolas Coleman
The Business of Selling Art, 2022
Andrea Festa Fine Art

For casual observers of the recent Paul Allen sale at Christie’s, the art market seems in rude health. Not only did it reach the highest total ever for a single auction (a cool $1.5 billion of sales on the first night alone), it set an astonishing 20 records for artists under the hammer.

But the sale was more of a rarity than an indicator for the art market as a whole, and represented only its very top end rather than a complete picture. Collections of such pedigree are market rarities, and as such, it would be unwise to look at recent big-ticket sales as a barometer of market sentiment. Rather, now is a time for collectors looking to sell on the secondary market to be pricing works at lower ranges than they might have just months ago.

Recessions are viewed as all but a certainty across global markets, and the art market is not immune. Historically, as the economy impacts the stock market, the art market lags behind.


Take the global recession of 2008. That September, financial markets were in distress, yet the art market appeared to be in strong form. Damien Hirst, for instance, sold $200 million of art on the same day that Lehman Brothers announced its closure. Around six months later, the art market began to feel the broader global downturn. By May 2009, typically safe-haven artists such as Giacometti and Picasso were selling below their estimates. And by the end of the year, public auction sales sank to $18.3 billion from a high of $32.9 billion two years earlier, according to Mei Moses. Sales volume shrank as well, down to $630 million from $2 billion in 2008.

During that time, art at the lower end of the market ($5,000 and under) expanded its share of sales volume by 74% in the first half of 2009, while the volume of higher-priced works shrunk. Knowing that buyers will have less cash to part with, how should sellers proceed now?

According to Mei Moses, public auction prices in total fell by 27% between 2007 and 2009, and many expect to see a dip of similar levels if we enter a comparable recession now.

“Depending on the severity of the recession, there is an exodus of the more speculative elements of the market and prices do drop,” said Alan Bamberger, a consultant, advisor, and founder of Bamberger noted that sellers would need to be more “flexible” when it comes to pricing as a result: “The hardcore art lovers can get back in to have more say over what prices they’re willing to pay, and have more sellers willing to sell at those levels,” he said.

To date, 2022 has been viewed as a positive year for the art market. According to the Art Basel and UBS report A Survey of Global Collecting in 2022, which surveyed high-net-worth collectors from 11 global markets, the number of those transacting most frequently at prices above $100,000 grew from 48% in 2021 to 59% in the first half of 2022. But as negative economic factors materialize, collectors’ attitudes are shifting: More than half of those surveyed in Artsy’s Collector Insights Report this past September said that inflation and a negative economic outlook are causing them to decrease their spending.

The impact of this is already being felt on the ground, where some sellers are pricing works according to earlier, rosier times and turning off buyers who recognize that the situation now is different.

John Baldessari
Money with Space Between, 1994
Gregg Shienbaum Fine Art

Setting prices according to a weakened economy has long been a practice in the housing market, where prices historically dip as demand dries up. That trend is currently repeating itself in the U.S.

The good news for sellers is that collectors tend to find a way to keep buying art within their budget. Some 55% of high-net-worth collectors surveyed by Art Basel said they planned to buy work over the next 12 months, and this attitude rings true beyond the upper end of the market. New collectors are buying work at a higher rate than ever before, with 86% saying they purchased at a similar or higher level compared to 2021. Buyers are also collecting online more, with more than half of collectors surveyed by Artsy in September reporting that they spent the majority of their art budget online over the last year.

“In a market which is likely to be more unstable, do not have aggressive estimates or that will exacerbate the issues going on,” said Richard Bagnall-Smith, a co-founder of Cadell, an independent art advisory firm that has advised on more than $260 million of sales over the last 18 months. “Great and good works will always sell well, but it’s wise to take advice on how to manage the best way through that.”

Arun Kakar
Arun Kakar is Artsy’s Art Market Editor.