A file photo showing Chinese artist Zhang Daqian's "Lotus in the Wind" scroll painting at a 2014 Sotherby's fine Chinese paintings spring sale. In 2016, China established itself as the global superpower with Zhang Daqian's works proving especially popular. PHOTO: Agence France-Presse.

Global art sales plunged in 2016 as the number of high-value works sold dropped by half, while China regained its status as the world’s top market, Artprice said in an annual report released Monday.

Art auctions worldwide totalled US$12.5 billion last year, down 22 percent from US$16.1 billion in 2015, it said.

The world’s biggest database for art prices and sales, working with Chinese partner Artron, attributed the drop to a plunge in the number of works worth more than US$10 million each, from 160 in 2015 to 80 last year.

“On all continents sellers are choosing a policy of ‘wait-and-see’,” Artprice CEO Thierry Ehrmann said.

Top-dollar auctions last year included that of an Impressionist painting of a haystack by Claude Monet, “Meule”, which went for US$81.4 million and a Peter Paul Rubens masterpiece, “Lot and his Daughters”, sold for US$58.1 million, both at Christie’s.

Contemporary art had its stand-out moments, too, with an untitled painting from American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat that went to a Japanese collector for US$57.3 million, and Wassily Kandinsky’s “Rigid and Curved” from 1935, which went under the hammer for US$23.3 million.

China, art ‘superpower’

But it was China which chalked up the highest total sales and “established itself clearly as the superpower” of the art world, the report said.

After five years of dominance, the country lost its title as top art market to the United States in 2015, but a year later was back, recording US$4.8 billion in auction sales.

That figure represented 38 percent of total world sales, said Artprice, which compiled the data with its partner firm Artron of China.

Traditional calligraphy and painting comprised the vast majority of sales in China.

The country’s biggest sale in 2016 was a scroll painting of “Five Drunken Kings Return on Horses” by early 14th-century Chinese artist Ren Renfa that went for $45.89 million.

But contemporary art sales, too, are becoming frequent in Hong Kong which “has become an unmissable spot on the art market”, Artprice said.

A year of consolidation

Despite the drop in overall value of sales, the global art market witnessed an 11-percent rise in “fine art” transactions, a category that excludes antiques, applied art like pottery and furniture.

“The range of prices under US$50,000 shows the strongest progression and currently makes up 96 of the market in the West”, the art database said.

In 2016, “the principal objective was to consolidate the core of the market, to the detriment of a new race to reach record prices,” it said.

New York City remained the undisputed capital for art auctions, chalking up US$3.2 billion in sales, over Beijing’s US$2.3 billion and London’s US$2.1 billion.

Chinese artists were also the main moneymakers in the auction world, taking three of the five top spots for 2016 sales.

Works by China’s Zhang Daqian fetched the highest amounts, followed by 20th-century master Pablo Picasso, then Chinese watercolorist Qi Baishi and “father” of Chinese contemporary art Wu Guanzhong, and, finally, the German contemporary artist Gerhard Richter.