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It’s official: sales of art at auction shrank again in 2003
Figures show between 1.2% and 17% decline in turnover

Once again the bean-counters have finished processing the prices made for art at auction over the last year. The results of their calculations are served up in the form of reports, which highlight the trends that may have emerged. None of these reports is perfect, and even though the figures come from the same raw data, their results are quite different, but they are the closest thing to an objective, statistical analysis of the art market.

The picture is far from complete because auction prices-are just the visible tip of an iceberg. Floating invisibly and unrecorded under the water are sales by dealers. However, it is generally assumed that turnover at auction can be doubled to get an idea of the total value of the art market.

Another proviso is that the figures that follow do not reflect the whole auction market, but only those prices reported to the art data companies. As a result each firm presents a different picture, with the French-based Artprice.com getting more French prices, and many more lots under €1,000, whereas the British Art Sales Index (ASI) has a threshold, so art which sells under a certain price is not included.*

Both firms reported a decline in turnover last year. ASI recorded turnover of £1.45 billion ($2.32 billion), a drop of 10.3% in pounds sterling but only 1.2% in dollars, due to the declining value of the American currency. Good sales in the autumn, when Sotheby’s and Christie’s reported a total of $482.3 million in the main November auctions, failed to rescue the year, which had started badly with fewer people consigning works for sale because of jitters over the Iraqi war.

Turnover declined in the US (-11%) and the UK (-18%) as well as Italy (-14%) according to ASI. France saw a 6.8% increase: certainly not as much as the French had hoped for, and mainly due to just one sale, the €46 million André Breton sale at Drouot in April last year.

Unsurprisingly, the number of lots sold also declined by 7%.The average price per work sold rose by 6.5% in $ terms but declined by 3.2% in £ terms, according to ASI. In France, the average price per work sold fell by 30%. At the top end of the market, membership of the “million pound club” continued to shrink, with only 149 works fetching over £1 million compared to 186 in 2002. The decline in value of these pictures is even more marked: they totalled $523 million in 2002, and fell to $363 million last year.

The plunge is even more dramatic according to Artprice, which couches its cold statistics in apocalyptic language. Its report on art market trends, headlined, “New York gripped by euphoria, Europe by a rising sense of panic,” (have we missed something?) gives turnover for 2003 as €2.2 billion (£1.53 billion, $2.52 billion), a drop of 17.3% compared to its 2002 figures.

Artprice notes that the number of lots sold in London has plummeted in the last three years, but despite this affirms that “Europe has taken advantage of the turmoil to strengthen its market leadership, with London, Paris and Rome leading the charge.” Europe accounted for 54% by value of fine art sold at auction last year, according to the firm, while the US market share has been stable at around 42% for two years.

*ASI records paintings, watercolours and drawings over £250; sculpture and miniatures over £1,000; photographs and prints over £2,000 and regional “schools” over £5,000. Artprice has no lower limit.


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