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The figures were revealed in the findings of the latest annual Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report which also found buying online surged during 2020.

Digital sales of art and antiques reached a record high of $12.4bn in 2020, effectively doubling in value year on year. The financial share accounted for by online sales expanded markedly from 9% of total sales by value in 2019 to 25% in 2020. Alongside the closure of non-essential retail, time available for screen surfing as people worked from home was deemed a key factor.

A $50.1bn industry

Overall global sales of art and antiques fell 22% to an estimated $50.1bn in 2020, compared with the previous year.

As the number of live auctions diminished and businesses were forced to shutter for much of the year, the declines in both the value and the volume of works sold were consistent across all price segments of the art and antiques market.

There was little change to the traditional hierarchy. The three core art-dealing hubs – the US, UK, and Greater China – continued to account for a majority (82%) of the value of global business in 2020.

Sales in the UK declined by 22% in 2020 to $9.9bn, their lowest level in a decade.

Specifically, sales at auction were down a total of 30% year-on-year at $17.6bn. Some but not all of that can be accounted for by a rise in private sales by the leading auction houses. These were estimated to have reached over $3.2bn in 2020 (up 36% from 2019).

Aggregate dealer sales were estimated to have fallen by around 20% to $29.3bn in 2020, after a marginal increase of 2% in 2019.

Unique to 2020, most business was done without reliance on art fairs. An analysis of 365 international fairs showed two in three (61%) were cancelled – a massive drop that meant live events accounted for just 13% of dealers’ total sales. However, returning to fairs was the third-highest priority overall for the next two years for dealers (alongside online sales and maintaining relationships with collectors).

Report author Clare McAndrew, of Ar t s Economics, said: “The Covid- 19 crisis provided the impetus for change and restructuring, the most fundamental shift being the roll-out of digital strategies and online sales, which had lagged behind other industries up to now.”

Read more on the Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report here.