Fresh insight into art collecting in the US

The new UBS Investor Watch Survey reveals buying trends, and shows top collectors are concerned about sustainability

Installation view at Art Basel Miami Beach 2018

How are the habits of art collectors changing? And what concerns them most? The UBS Investor Watch Survey, produced in collaboration with Art Economics, explores the behaviors of US-based collectors, identifying trends and providing insight into their collections.

Results indicated high spending: nearly 30% of those surveyed had spent more than $1 million on art and objects in the last year, while 12% had spent over $10 million. Much of this spending was by women: 51% spent more than $1 million, versus 15% of men. Women also spent at higher price points ($1 million-10 million, versus $10,000-50,000 for men). The most active spenders were millennial collectors.

The survey also revealed trends in the composition of collections: on average, comparing works created by men versus women, works by women made up just 37% of collections – a number that was marginally higher for female (40%) and millennial collectors (41%). Living artists represented 57% of works in collections, rising to 64% for Boomers (and 66% for the Silent generation).

Sustainability was a key concern for respondents, with 81% of millennials saying they were very or extremely concerned, falling to 52% for Gen X collectors. Of the total sample, most (59%) consider sustainable options for the purchase and receipt of art and management of collections, with only 13% unwilling to pursue these options if they added to the cost of transactions.

The survey revealed that collectors are most concerned about the accountability and due diligence of museums and public institutions in relation to their patrons, funding and board members – a subject which has been much-discussed across 2019.

Despite their concerns, 53% of collectors surveyed planned to donate some or all of their collections to museums. This rose to 68% for women and 73% for millennials. Spouses, children and grandchildren were most likely to inherit collections, indicating a desire to share a passion for art with future generations.

The survey follows bellwether auctions in New York. In November, Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale totaled $325.3 million, buoyed by a sought-after word painting by Ed Ruscha, which soared above its high estimate to $52.5 million. Sotheby’s equivalent sale generated $270.7 million, with a single Asian collector rumored to have spent $54.4 million.

Results at each auction house were down on 2018 – a decline that has been attributed to a reduction in high-value works, which accounted for 61% of total sales by value in 2018, according to The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report. Despite this, each auction came within its pre-sale estimate, and strong sell-through rates (92% at Sotheby’s; 89% at Christie’s) suggest buyers remain active and engaged.

After November’s auctions, Art Basel Miami Beach (December 5-8) will provide collectors from the US and beyond with an opportunity to acquire works by established and emerging artists. Talks on sustainability and museum funding indicate that the fair is closely aligned with collectors’ concerns, while discussions with young collectors recognize a new generation’s appetite and excitement for art.