UBS & Art Basel Report 2021 – Top findings

UBS Art Basel report 2021

0:58 min

Authored by renowned cultural economist Dr. Clare McAndrew, the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report offers an analytical perspective from 2,500 collectors and art market players. “The fall in sales was inevitable,” said McAndrew. “But the crisis also provided the impetus for change and restructuring, the most fundamental shift being the rollout of digital strategies and online sales.”[1]

Global sales of art and antiques reached an estimated $50.1 billion

The figure was down 22% in 2019, but still above the 2009 recession low, when sales fell by 36% to $39.5 billion. The US market retained its position as leader, with a share of 42% of global sale values. Greater China and the UK followed, on par at 20%. However Greater China overtook the US to become the largest public auction market, with a share of 36% of sales by value.

Online sales reached record highs, doubling in value

Though the pandemic forced many auction houses, galleries and fairs to abandon in-person activity, it also accelerated digital transformation. Online sales doubled in value from 2019 to reach a record high of $12.4 billion. The figure represented a record 25% share of the market’s total value – the first time the share of e-commerce in the art market has exceeded that of general retail.

Pandemic increased collector’s interest

Despite having fewer opportunities to buy in-person, collectors surveyed remained actively engaged with the art market in 2020, buying an average of 9 works, versus 10 in 2019. 66% of those surveyed said the pandemic had increased their interest in collecting, and one third (32%) said this increase had been significant. Many intend to be active in 2021, with 57% planning to purchase more work.

Female buying power and artist representation

Women spent more than men, with their median expenditure rising 13% year-on-year to $154,000. Although gender representation is still an issue across all regions surveyed, there are some indications that the share of female artists’ works in collections is slowly improving over time, having increased to 39% in 2020, versus 37% in 2019, and 33% in 2018. Female collectors were more likely to have a greater share of works by female artists in their collection than men (42% versus 36%)

Next generation

Millennial HNW collectors were the highest spenders in 2020, with 30% having spent over $1 million (versus 17% of Boomers). Millennials were also more likely to be active online, reporting greater use of online viewing rooms offered by art fairs and galleries, and social media channels.

IT expenditure incremented +80%

Dealers and auction houses diverted more resources to IT, with spending up by 80% year-on-year to $3.5 billion, the largest slice of ancillary spending.

Lower operating costs saved galleries to be still profitable

The report found that 28% of dealers were more profitable than in 2019, and 18% said they maintained a stable net profit level.

Healer’s positive predictions

Dealers’ top priorities shifted noticeably in the past year, with most focusing on their existing clients, online sales, and cost-cutting. Most dealers (58%) said they expected an improvement in sales in 2021, while 27% predicted they would be stagnant, and 15% expected a further decline.

Art fairs dramatic decline

As expected, in-person fairs, of course, suffered the greatest setbacks. Of 365 global art fairs planned for 2020, 61% were cancelled and 37% held live events, while 2% held hybrid in-person/online events. Despite the majority of art fairs (62%) offered a digital version of their fairs in 2020, dealers lost 13% of their total sales.

Transparency in online rooms and fairs brought sales

90% of High Net Worth collectors visited an art fair or gallery online in 2020, and 72% said it was important or “essential” to have a price posted when browsing works of art for sale online.

Asian top-tiered market buoyant but bumpy

The report finds that Asia’s wealthy are investing in a wider range of artworks valued at above US$10 million, which is probably why Christie’s is choosing to sell Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Warrior (1982) in Hong Kong on March 23. Valued at around US$31 million, it is the most expensive Western artwork offered in Asia. However, the report says late payment and non-payment remains an issue in China. Data from the Chinese Association of Auctioneers shows that in the first half of 2020, 31% of lots over 10 million were not paid.

NFT might be a bubble

Regarding the last week’s US$69 million sale of an artwork by Beeple, McAndrew comments: “When Beeple blew the ceiling off the online-only art market, the disruptive thing is not that it has disrupted the hierarchy of the traditional art market [but that] the NFT market has a huge amount of dealing going on – it is very speculative, very bubbly,”[2] she says, referring to non-fungible tokens, a “one of a kind” digital asset.

[1] Villa, Angelica. “2021 Art Basel Global Market Report Reveals 22% Drop in 2020 Sales to $50 Billion.” ArtNews, 16 Mar. 2021,

[2] Tsui, Enid. “NFTs Not Disrupting Traditional Art World (yet), China Now Biggest Auction Market: Arts Update.” South China Morning Post, 16 Mar. 2021,