Despite restricted movement, health risks, and fears of a prolonged global recession, collectors were active in the first half of 2020. Of the 360 high-net-worth collectors surveyed by McAndrew, 92% said they’d purchased at least one artwork in the first half of the year, 56% said they’d already spent more than $100,000 on art this year, and 16% said they’d spent over $1 million. Many tended to support the artists and galleries they knew before the pandemic—only 14% of collectors said they were actively seeking new galleries, while 41% said their focus was on galleries with which they already had relationships.
Despite this, online sales helped galleries and auction houses connect with new clients. In the gallery sector, this was especially true for smaller galleries: New online buyers accounted for 35% of all online sales by galleries with annual turnover of less than $250,000, but just 18% of online sales for galleries with annual turnover above $10 million.
Across all galleries, the largest share of sales (44%) were made via galleries’ websites or over email in the first half of 2020; notably, nearly a third (32%) of collectors said they’d bought art via Instagram in that period. Unsurprisingly, there was generational variation in the adoption of digital sales. Millennial collectors and members of Generation X were more likely to have bought works through galleries’ online viewing rooms or websites than their boomer forebears, who were more likely to visit galleries in person to make acquisitions.
For auction houses, online-only sales were invaluable for reaching new collectors and converting existing clients to digital sales. Sotheby’s reported that more than a third of their online buyers between January and June were buying at Sotheby’s for the first time. Christie’s told ArtTactic that 31% of their online buyers since the lockdown period began have been existing clients transacting online for the first time.
The ArtTactic report also suggests collectors have grown more comfortable buying high-priced works online. The average price paid for a piece of fine art purchased online via Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s in the first eight months of the year was $25,298, a dramatic 167% increase from the 2019 average of $9,476.
“In the early phase of the pandemic, [the shutdown] forced more expensive works online, as no other channel was available,” Pettersen said. “With online buyers responding positively to this, it created a kind of snowball effect: an increase in buyer confidence in terms of buying art and collectibles online at higher price levels; [and] more confidence among consignors (and auction houses) in offering [or] selling higher value lots online—each round of auctions re-enforcing the confidence in the next.”