Art Basel and UBS Find Wealthy Art Collectors Are Retreating from the Market

Women are also increasingly outspending male collectors, according to this year's Survey of Global Collecting.

Amid financial and global turmoil, millionaires are pulling back on their art spending. Cautious collectors are allocating less wealth towards purchases, according to the new Survey of Global Collecting report from Art Basel and UBS.

People standing in front of gallery booth with artwork hanging on temporary walls
Kaufmann Repetto’s Booth at Paris+ par Art Basel at Grand Palais Ephemere 2023. Luc Castel/Getty Images

The report, which analyzes global trends in art collecting in 2023, uses data gathered by Arts Economics. Authored by Dr. Clare McAndrew, the research firm’s founder, this year’s survey is the largest to date with more than 2,800 participating collectors from eleven key regions. All respondents were high-net-worth (HNW) individuals with disposable financial assets exceeding $1 million.

While HNW collectors who purchased artwork priced at more than $1 million increased from 4 percent in 2022 to 9 percent in the first half of 2023, that’s still lower than in 2021 and previous years, according to the report. This suggests “possible buyer caution and an increasingly thin high-end following the strong COVID-19 bounce back in sales,” wrote McAndrew. And HNW individuals are funneling less wealth toward their art collections than last year, allocating an average of 19 percent of their wealth portfolios in 2023 compared to 24 percent in 2022.

Total sales at major auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips and Bonhams were also down by 16 percent in the first half of this year compared to 2022. However, the report noted that in-person buying is seeing a resurgence, with 84 percent of collectors who purchase artwork buying directly from dealers, up from 73 percent in 2022. And of the surveyed collectors, 77 percent expressed optimism about the performance of the art market over the next six months.

Digital artwork’s dramatic decline

Paintings by far accounted for the largest spending by HNW collectors at 58 percent, followed by works on paper at 13 percent. Digital artwork, however, accounted for only 3 percent of total expenditure value and made up 8 percent of HNW collections, down from 15 percent in 2022.

This correlated with sales on Ethereum-based NFT platforms, according to the report, which noted that by mid-2023 they fell to their lowest level since January of 2021, with unique buyers declining from 40,000 to less than 2,000. “The slowdown on these platforms parallels the loss in share of digital art in collectors’ portfolios in 2023, as a greater number have anchored on more traditional and unique mediums, especially paintings,” wrote McAndrew. Even German art collectors, who had the highest share of digital art at 13 percent, reported declines from 16 percent last year.

The age group of top collectors has also shifted—while 2022 saw millennial collectors as the highest spenders in most art categories, the first half of this year reported Gen X and Boomers as top spenders in high-value segments like paintings and works on paper. The report additionally noted that Gen Z collectors increased expenditures on prints and digital art, “indicating that these could be important and accessible mediums for younger collectors entering the art market.”

Gender shifts in art

Despite a recently renewed focus on female artists, this “does not appear to have filtered down into balancing the content of these privately held collections when it comes to gender,” according to McAndrew. Art collections remain dominated by work by male artists, with only a 39 percent share of female artwork. This marks a 3 percent year-over-year decrease, bringing 2023 levels back to those of 2020.

The only sector that saw a significant improvement in acquiring work by female artists was collectors spending more than $10 million annually. This group not only spent more on female artists, with their share increasing from 46 percent in 2021 to 55 percent this year, but also hold collections in which female artists’ work encompassed 54 percent of holdings in 2023 compared to 43 percent in 2021.

Despite the unequal gender ratios when it comes to artists represented in the collections of HNW individuals, women outspent male collectors this year, with a median expenditure of $72,500 in the first half of 2023 compared to $59,400 for men. And while male collectors had a higher spending average overall, it’s likely figures were skewed by a small number of high spenders, according to the report.

Art Basel and UBS Find Wealthy Art Collectors Are Retreating from the Market