As the rich get richer, they spend more. Way more.

Collectors inside 2021’s Art Basel Hong Kong. Photographer: SOPA Images/LightRocket

By James Tarmy

March 29, 2022, 1:00 AM EDT

The art market has exceeded its pre-pandemic levels, climbing an estimated 29% year over year to $65.1 billion in 2021, according to the 2022 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report. It details the growth in every segment of the market, from decorative arts to blue-chip contemporary art.

The U.S. continued to lead global sales, with about $28 billion in art sold in just one year. Greater China was in second place, with sales totaling $13.4 billion, followed by the UK, with $11.3 billion. Global sales were $64.1 billion in 2019, according to prior reports, before plummeting 22% to $50.1 billion in 2020. 

Aside from publicly available auction data, the report’s authors rely heavily on self-reported sales from private dealers and collectors to compile their findings, meaning the report’s numbers are impossible to verify. Dealer data was compiled via two surveys last year; one resulted in 701 usable responses, and the second yielded 774.

With that caveat in mind, dealers say they sold $34.7 billion worth of art and antiques last year, up 18% from the year before. And 55% of dealers surveyed said they were more profitable than they were in 2020, while 24% reported a decline in profits.

Private individuals were more forthcoming: Some 2,339 high net worth collectors responded to surveys from Arts Economics and UBS Investor Watch, and their answers were enthusiastic. In 2019 the median expenditure on fine art, decorative art, and antiques was $72,000; last year it was $274,000, an increase of almost 281%. Just over a third of these collectors reported having spent more than $1 million. 

Given that many auction houses have already reported their 2021 totals, their success was less surprising but no less encouraging. Global auction sales rose 47% from 2020, according to the report, totaling $26.3 billion. Postwar and contemporary art continued to dominate the auction market, with $6.7 billion worth of art in this category occupying 55% of global fine art auction sales.

The vast majority of market participants are bullish about 2022: 53% of collectors surveyed said they planned to keep spending, and 62% of dealers predicted an improvement in sales.

And of course, you can’t talk about 2021 and not talk about NFTs.

The blockchain-based collectibles made their triumphant entry into the big leagues, with sales of art-related NFTs totaling $2.6 billion last year. A stunning 74% of high net worth collectors surveyed said they’d purchased an art-based NFT last year, with a substantial $9,000 median expenditure on the category. Broaden beyond art, median expenditure on NFTs, in general, climbs by $24,000.