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US unseats China as the world's biggest art market

Pablo Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O) sold for nearly $179 million in New York in May, setting a world record for artwork at auction. Photo: AP

Boosted by record-breaking New York sales of a Picasso painting and a Giacometti sculpture, the United States has become the world’s leader in public art auctions, unseating China, a 2015 report by Artprice showed.

The US art auction market grew by 20 per cent in the first six months of the year, with sales totallingUS $2.8 billion, nearly a billion more than China with sales worth US$1.9 billion, said the report.

“An unexpected rebound, considering that, year after year, China seemed to confirm its place as number one,” said Thierry Ehrmann, president and founder of Artprice, which compiles data on the art market, auction sales and artist’s prices.

Fuelled by a strong dollar, the US boom is based in New York where nearly all its art auctions are held, and the Big Apple ranks more than ever as the top place to find art masterpieces.

That could be seen at Christie’s art auction in May where Pablo Picasso’s The Women of Algiers (Version 0) went for US$179 million, the highest price ever for an art work sold at auction.

Another object of intense bidding was Alberto Giacometti’s bronze statue Man Pointing, which became the most expensive sculpture sold at auction for US$141 million.

On the global level, the number of works up for auction in January through June fell by 17 per cent. Sales dropped by 5 per cent from a year earlier, slipping from US$8.0 billion to US$7.6 billion, mainly due to the Chinese retreat, according to the report.

After having surged between 2009 and 2014 (by 214 per cent), Chinese sales - including Hong Kong and Taiwan - slowed dramatically by 30 per cent in the first half of 2015, according to figures collected by Chinese public group Artron, an institutional partner of Artprice.

The sluggish global economy has affected global art sales, but so have anti-corruption measures which have made art investors more cautious.

Artprice says these measures have paralysed more and more sales of art that did not meet strict legal definitions.

The report also noted that China was feeling competitive heat for second place from Great Britain, with London the world’s number two city for art auctions.

Sales in Britain increased by 6.0 percent in the first half of the year after spectacular growth of 35 percent in 2014. Sales totalled around $1.9 billion, less than $100 million short of China’s.

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