Access the first edition of The Art Law Review here, read Gregor and Petra’s full UK chapter here or access as a pdf here.
The United Kingdom remained one of the major centres of the international art market in 2019, retaining its second position with a 20 per cent market share, equivalent to US$12.7 billion, closely behind the United States and ahead of China. Although behind these figures lay a 9 per cent decline in the UK market, driven principally by the uncertainty around Brexit, the UK continued to dominate the European art market. UK auction sales accounted for US$4.3 billion in sales, down by 20 per cent year on year, roughly in line with the change in total auction sale volumes worldwide, excluding private treaty sales. The four large London auction houses (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Phillips) typically account for around 70 per cent to 75 per cent of UK total auction sales.
By contrast, dealer sales were largely stable. Art fairs remained a critical part of the art market’s infrastructure in 2019, accounting on average for 45 per cent of dealer sales.
Like all other art market centres, the UK market was fundamentally affected by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, with a large number of art fairs cancelled, dealers and galleries closing for several months during the national lock-down, and economic uncertainty contributing further to declining sales. UK galleries expected a 79 per cent drop in revenue this year, according to an Art Newspaper survey from April 2020. According to the first comprehensive analysis of the impact of covid-19 on the gallery sector, published by Art Basel and UBS, art gallery sales fell by an average 36 per cent in the first half of 2020 with a majority of galleries expecting sales to continue to decrease for the rest of the year. Earlier research by ArtTactic found that auction sales fell by 49 per cent for the leading auction houses in the first half of 2020.
At the same time, the pandemic accelerated the move by auction houses, dealers and art fairs to online platforms, viewing rooms and transactions. According to Art Basel and UBS, the share of online gallery sales rose from 10 per cent of total sales in 2019 to 37 per cent in the first half of 2020.
As covid-19 enters a second wave in the UK and across Europe in the autumn of 2020, it remains to be seen whether the UK art market is both sufficiently resilient and innovative to weather the coming months.