Chart of the day, auction-house market share edition

By Felix Salmon
June 22, 2011
Randy Kennedy has a bullish article on Artnet's nascent art-auction business, which is doing better the second time round than it did the first time round, but which is still tiny.

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Randy Kennedy has a bullish article on Artnet’s nascent art-auction business, which is doing better the second time round than it did the first time round, but which is still tiny. I’m skeptical: value in the art world is very much reliant upon the institutional authority of auction houses and galleries, and Artnet’s auction system is designed to strip out all of that information. It can work for fungible editioned works of relatively modest value, but I do think that most collectors are always going to want a bit more hand-holding before buying art, not to mention the opportunity to actually see the art object before buying it.

That said, the decline of the Sotheby’s and Christie’s duopoly is real, and this is a great opportunity for Artnet or anybody else to try to make a name in a new world with many more players. Here’s some data which Artnet pulled for me, showing total global auction sales, split between the duopoly and everybody else. While sales totals rise and fall, the one constant is the decline of the big guys’ market share:

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Next year, it’s more likely than not that Sotheby’s and Christie’s between them will have less than half the global auction market for fine art (which is the data used for this chart). A large part of this is the rise of China, which has hundreds if not thousands of auction houses, and where the big two have very small market share. But even outside China I think that Sotheby’s and Christie’s are both vulnerable, in theory, to lighter-weight business models like Artnet’s auctions or art.sy or the VIP Art Fair. Many of them will fail — but some will succeed. The big two will be faced with a tough choice: do they compete directly with the new entrants, or do they protect their own high-margin core business?

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Some outstanding Fine Art is being sold on collective websites such as The Curator’s Eye (www.curatorseye.com).

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