The Art Market Was Worth $64 Billion in 2012

Cash for Your Warhol billboard (Image via wgbh.org)
Cash for Your Warhol billboard (Image via wgbh.org)

As the New York Times convenes a debate over the possibility of an art market bubble in a letter to the editor, the news arrives that international art sales reached a grand total of $64 billion over the past year, reports Artlyst.

In his letter to the Times, author William Cole complains that the exorbitant size of the art market and its recent predilection for huge auction house prices is caused not by the connoisseurship of intelligent collectors and art advisers, but by hype that goes unchecked by a complacent critical media, just waiting for someone (presumably Cole) to proclaim the emperor (Damien Hirst? Gagosian?) is actually naked.

Well, better luck in 2013. The $64 billion benchmark is big, and the art market size has grown over the past few years, despite numerous economic pitfalls. A report from the European Fine Art Foundation in 2011 set the size of the market at $60.8 billion, and Artnet shows growth since 2009’s low point of $39.4 billion, which was down from 2007’s $65.8 billion. Although art critic Blake Gopnik is also questioning the viability of the art bubble, the money is still flowing.

Size of the art market over time (Image via artnet.com)
Size of the art market over time (Image via artnet.com)

But just how large is the art market in the grand scheme of things? Let’s look at some other annual economic figures for comparison.

International Art Market: $64 billion

Christie’s Worldwide Sales, first half of 2012 (source): $3.5 billion

Chinese Art & Antiques Industry (source): $13 billion*

*This figure is heatedly questioned by market commentators, who point out the company that owns China’s state auction houses also has stakes in the military and weapons manufacturers.

Ikea’s 2013 Sales (source): $30 billion

American Tobacco Industry (source): $35.1 billion (in revenue, 2011)

American Alcohol Industry (source): $43.6 billion (in revenue, 2012)

U.S. Military Spending in 2012 (source): $1.4 trillion

The art market number is a hefty sum, and, perhaps surprisingly, it holds its own against some of the larger figures on that list. Yet despite all the value we assign to the art world culturally — we’re looking at objects of enduring historical significance and aesthetic accomplishment, after all — it can always be reduced down to a number, just like any other business. What’s missing from these statistics is that sense of non-monetary importance, i.e., the things we actually like about participating in that $64 billion community.

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