After its fall auctions series drew pre-pandemic sums and crowds, Sotheby’s reported $7.3 billion in sales in 2021—a record high for the auction house. That total is 32 percent more than what the house made in 2020, when it reported $5.5 billion in sales. It even exceeds pre-pandemic figures—Sotheby’s said in 2019 that it brought in $4.8 billion in sales. The 2021 figure suggests that the market is alive and well, perhaps even more so than before.
Some $6 billion came in through auctions in New York, Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Geneva—almost double what was made last year. The remaining $1.3 billion in sales came in through private sales. In 2020, the house made $1.5 billion in private sales, but the drop in 2021 can be explained by the circumstances of last year, when the pandemic drove people to buy at places other than public auctions.
As usual, modern and contemporary art accounted for much of Sotheby’s sales over the past 12 months, making for $4.3 billion across both auction and private sale channels.
In a statement, Sotheby’s attributed rising demand for emerging artists as one factor driving up the annual results, and indeed, the house recently established an evening “Now” sale devoted solely to art made in within the last 20 years by artists with rising primary markets. The first sale of that kind was held in November. It far outpaced expectations, bringing in $72 million, double its low estimate of $36.6 million. Sotheby’s head of contemporary art evening sale in New York, David Galperin, told ARTnews in November that the idea behind the move was “to formulate an entire sale around opening lots,” works by young artists that typically prompt bidding frenzies.
There were 158 works sold at Sotheby’s in 2021 for values between $5 and $50 million, the house reported, as opposed to 91 in 2020. The house also said that there were more works sold for $15 million or more than ever before. The house’s luxury division, which sells wine, jewelry, cars and clothing, also saw a record yearly high, selling more than $1 billion worth of objects.
According to Sotheby’s, its expanded digital offerings, which included hybrid live-streaming formats and a new NFT platform, helped lure new bidders and contributed to a spike in sales. Online sales realized $800 million this year, a record for the house. Last year, by contrast, $525 million was brought in through Sotheby’s online sales.
Christie’s has often been considered the leading auction house when it comes to NFTs, having been responsible for the $69 million sale of a Beeple work in the medium that set off a new craze. Still, Sotheby’s reported a healthy $100 million in NFT sales, helped by the the launch of its NFT marketplace, Sotheby’s Metaverse, in October. Nearly 80 percent of the people who bought and bid there had never done so before at the house. (Overall, 39 percent of buyers and 44 percent of bidders who transacted at Sotheby’s in 2021 were newcomers.)
Collectors across Asia continue to be a focus for the auction house. Across the marquee New York November evening sales, Asian collectors accounted for 20 percent of bidding, taking home or acting as under-bidders on lots by blue-chip Western artists like Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder, Gerhard Richter, Claude Monet, Egon Schiele, Roy Lichtenstein, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. On par with last year’s findings, this base of collectors continues to accounts for around 30 percent of all of the auction house’s sale activity.