Are Collectors Still Buying as Much Art Online as They Were During Lockdown? We Crunched the Numbers to Find Out

We examined data from the Artnet Price Database to break down what's actually going on in the market.

This is an art collector. (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)

When online art sales took a great leap upward in 2020, we all heard the same explanation: People flush with stimulus checks or stock-market gains decided to invest in their surroundings because they found themselves spending more time at home than ever before.

Flash forward two years. Governments have lifted restrictions, offices have called workers back, and in-person auctions and art fairs have resumed. So what happened to all that revenue from online sales? 

As it turns out, it kept climbing. In 2021, more than $1.5 billion worth of art was sold online at Sotheby’s, Phillips, Christie’s, Bonhams, and Artnet Auctions.

So what does this reveal about the future of the market? Read on for answers. 

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

During lockdown, people who wanted to buy art pretty much had no choice but to get it online. What happened after they were allowed to leave their homes?

Surprisingly, they actually just kept buying art online. Even as collectors ventured back into salesrooms for live auctions, revenue from online-only sales continued to grow. The $1.5 billion in digital sales generated in 2021 by the Big Three houses, plus Bonhams and Artnet’s own auction platform, represented a 35 percent jump year over year.

That’s also a staggering 12-fold increase from 2019, before the pandemic forced auction houses to (finally) drag their operations into the 21st century. 


It sounds like buying habits have changed for good. But how exactly have they changed? Are people buying more art online, or just more expensive art online?

Both. In 2021, a total of 27,215 works were sold online at the houses we examined—up 17 percent year over year. That’s all the more remarkable considering that in 2020, most sales only took place in cyberspace. (We define “online-only sales” as ones that are held entirely online, with no bidders in attendance IRL.) 

But it’s not just the number of transactions that’s rising. The average price of artworks sold online also remained on an upward trajectory in 2021, jumping from $46,595 to $53,685. That’s a bump of around 15 percent. 


O.K., now I want specifics. Who is leading the way in online sales? 

Sotheby’s. The auction house began investing heavily in tech infrastructure before the pandemic, and remains at the forefront, having generated $778.5 million in online-only sales in 2021. Christie’s came in second, with $620.8 million. Phillips landed in last place, with just $15 million, less than either Bonhams or Artnet Auctions. 

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

So what’s the big picture here?

The pandemic made buyers, sellers, and auction houses all more comfortable with the idea of transacting online more frequently, and for higher-priced items. Those shifting behaviors remained in place even after lockdown measures were lifted.

This represents quite a fundamental change. In 2019—which, however it may feel, is not actually that long ago—the average price of an artwork sold online was $11,228. In just two years, that figure almost quadrupled

While art fairs and galleries have struggled to maintain engagement through online viewing rooms, auction houses appear to have successfully moved the needle when it comes to moving business online.

And now that the door—or, perhaps more aptly, browser window—is open, it’s unlikely to close. 


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