The latest TEFAF market report values the global art market at €43 billion for the last year. The figure was 7% down the previous year, but the fall is wholly explained by a €3.5bn decline in sales in China.
The report, unveiled by its author, the art market economist Dr Clare McAndrew, at the TEFAF Maastricht fair on Thursday, put the United States back at the top of art trading nations globally, with China second and the UK third.
The respective values given to their markets are €14.2bn (up 5%), €10.6bn (down 24%) and €10.1bn (up 1%).
That means that the US accounts for 33% of the global market, China 25% and the UK 23%. The European Union as a whole makes up 36% of the global market, with aggregate sales down 3% year on year to €15.8bn.
The volume of transactions also fell, by just under 4% to 35.5 million, down nearly 30% on the boom year of 2007.
Dr McAndrew, who included special reports on the emerging markets of China and Brazil in her global review, noted that Post-War and Contemporary art achieved its highest ever recorded level of sales at €4.5bn, accounting for 43% of the fine art auction market by value. Modern art was the next biggest at €3.2bn, giving it a 30% share of the fine art auction market.
Dealers seem to be heading back to fairs, too, with 5% more sales made from stands in 2012, while private retail and dealer sales fell 4% to €22.2bn.
The importance of New York and London as market hubs was underscored at a time when cross-border trade remains low even as domestic markets grow, says the report. Together they account for 64% of world imports of art by value and 62% of exports.
Dr McAndrew's detailed assessment of China and Brazil makes for some interesting comparisons.
Whereas auctions have been the main growth area in China, accounting for almost 70% of sales, in Brazil it is dealers and galleries who dominate, with 79% of all sales.
"The gallery sector, although increasing rapidly, is still relatively underdeveloped," states the report, in its China review. "Many collectors are focused on buying directly from artists as they believe this to be the cheapest route, or they buy through auctions which they believe offer more choice, leaving the gallery sector less developed than in other more mature markets."
With Brazil, on the other hand, it is the tax laws, especially the country's import regulations, that have blighted the development of its international market.
Dr McAndrew identifies a number of weaknesses in the Chinese market brought about by the rapid growth of the auction sector - the lack of expertise, specialist knowledge, regulation and transparency among them - that act as a barrier to confidence.
"The art market in China has become largely dependent on a few top collectors at the high-value end, along with a cluster of buyers at the bottom end purchasing works for less than €5000. The important middle market is yet to develop," says the report.
"Above all, the market in mainland China is very dependent on domestic demand with a relatively low degree of international participation. To become more international, the regulatory structure needs to become more open to trade and the free exchange of ideas and art."