A Peek Behind the Curtain at Auction Houses

A conversation about findings from the most recent Intelligence Report.

Behind the scenes of the highly-orchestrated theatre of auctions. Photo courtesy of Christie's.

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A few years back, electrifying bidding wars and monumental transactions routinely had us all on the edge of our seats in the auction room, but this sort of in-room excitement now feels a long way off. Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the triumphant post-sale press releases that are just as routinely put out by the auction houses who are keen to signal confidence in the market and, of course, in their performance. But in 2023, there’s no denying that the art market finally came back down to earth.

It took a breather for a combination of reasons, including rising interest rates, geopolitical uncertainty, and let’s not forget the crypto crash. But the point is not to wax poetic about the state of the art market because Artnet’s Intelligence Report is all about data, and we have the numbers to back it up.

Let’s refresh with some top line figures: The average price of a fine artwork sold at auction last year dropped almost 16 percent from 2022. Total fine arts sales generated by the big three auction houses—that’s Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips—dropped 23 percent year over year. And the total spent on fine art at auction in 2023 is down 12.7 percent.

This week we have two speakers here to pull back the curtain on the findings of the latest Intelligence Report, from a conversation first recorded exclusively for Artnet Pro members. First, is Artnet’s investigative journalist Katya Kazakina, who won a 2023 National Arts and Entertainment award from the Los Angeles Press Club for her cover story of the last Intelligence Report.

Her feature story this time around is just as fascinating. It delves into the Oscar-worthy performances of those very auction houses. To the casual observer (and often, even to those in the art world) it’s not that obvious how the houses carefully stage manage their proceedings and, sometimes, even the results. The practice has become all the more insidious following the repeal of a set of laws governing the auction houses in New York City. The second guest this week is Margaret Carrigan, another sharp market mind and the editor behind our insightful Artnet Pro newsletter “The Back Room.”

Read the full story at the heart of Katya and Margaret’s conversation, and the entire Intelligence Report, now.

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