The Market for Million-Dollar Artwork is Growing Faster Than Ever

As the rich get richer, they're spending their money on multi-million dollar artwork, according to a new report from Sotheby's.

People speak to bidders on the phone, standing in front of an Andy Warhol print
Bidding at a Sotheby’s auction in Nov. 2021. (Photo by YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images)

The sale of multi-million dollar artwork is dominating the auction world, according to a new report from Sotheby's and ArtTactic, a firm analyzing data in the art industry.

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“Perhaps the most striking finding is the sheer size of the $1 million plus market,” said Anders Petterson, CEO of ArtTactic, in a video accompanying the inaugural report, which analyzed data from Sotheby’s, Christie's and Phillips regarding sales between 2018 and 2022.

While sales of contemporary, impressionist, modern and old master pieces exceeding $1 million only accounted for 4 percent of lots sold during those years, they represented 74 percent of total sales by value, according to the report. These high-end sales accounted for more than $31 billion of the $42 billion spent at art auctions in the past five years.

Last year, the sales of $1 million plus works reached $8.1 billion, a nearly 10 percent increase from 2018. There’s also been a significant rise in the sales of artwork exceeding $20 million, which accounted for more than 42 percent of million-dollar auction sales in 2022.

Botticelli portrait of a young man hangs on a dark wall, as a shadowed figure observes it.
Sandro Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel, which sold for $92.2 million at a 2021 Sotheby’s auction. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

The rich are getting richer

The growth of the upscale art market is connected to an increase in global wealth, according to the report, which noted that in 2018 Credit Suisse estimated there were 150,000 people worldwide with more than $50 million worth of personal assets. It increased to 264,000 people by 2022.

Younger collectors are also entering the high-value art market. Millennials accounted for 16 percent of $1 million plus sales in 2022, compared to 7 percent in 2018.

This is in part because younger art collectors are benefitting from high incomes in newer sectors like digital technology, in addition to inheriting money from their families, said Sotheby’s. Generations born between 1928 and 1964 are in the process of transferring over an estimated $30 trillion to $68 trillion to their heirs, “in what economists describe as the largest-ever intergenerational wealth transfer,” according to the report.

Art collectors from Asia have also played a larger part in multi-million dollar auctions, representing 32 percent of collectors who placed a bid for artwork exceeding $1 million at Sotheby’s in the past five years, nearly matching 34 percent of North Americans and rising above 29 percent of Europeans.

Rise in high-profile sales of impressionist and modern art

Artwork from the impressionist and modern periods is leading the market of sales exceeding $1 million, accounting for 53 percent of sales by value in 2022, according to the report. This was largely influenced by high-profile sales of private collections, such as the November sales of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s collection, which realized more than $1 billion.

There was also increasing interest in high-value works by contemporary female artists, which accounted for 25 percent of $1 million plus sales in 2022, compared to approximately 12 percent in 2018. Meanwhile, sales of million-dollar pieces by artists born after 1977 increased by 366 percent since 2018.

The top-selling artists for artwork exceeding $1 million in the past five years were Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Andy Warhol, according to the report.

The report additionally analyzed data on Sotheby’s private sales, information typically not shared with the public. Between 2018 and 2022, nearly 86 percent of private sales were for works exceeding $1 million, with contemporary pieces accounting for around 60 percent of the sales.

The pandemic caused a surge in private sales, which increased by 76 percent in 2020 to $1.4 billion. In 2022 this number fell slightly, with around $1 billion worth of private sales.

The Market for Million-Dollar Artwork is Growing Faster Than Ever