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The top trends at auction

Auction sales soared to a record high in 2021, and we set out to discover the reasons behind this impressive boom. From millennials buying retro to a rise in demand for luxury fashion accessories, these are the top trends we uncovered.

Although 2021 was anything but normal, the auction market experienced a banner year. Barnebys recently released Changing Trends in Global Auction Markets, a report which explores the reasons behind trends like more younger users shopping at auction and the popularity of second-hand luxury items. Here are some of the key takeaways.

Millennials going retro

Vintage stereoscope, photo from Girl with Red Hat

Younger shoppers came to the foreground in 2021, and high net-worth millennials were some of the biggest spenders at auction. Millennials also made up 43% of the users visiting Barnebys, an increase which shows that this generation is more interested in purchasing items at auction and is also more willing to use digital platforms like Barnebys. Somewhat ironically, these younger users were particularly interested in buying retro items. Collectibles like Pokémon cards and vinyl records were hugely popular, mainly because of their nostalgic appeal. The pandemic created uncertainty for everyone, and these types of items provide both comfort and a refreshingly analogue source of entertainment.

An environmentally-friendly outlook

Vintage Omega watch, photo from Bukowskis

Eco-conscious millennials appreciated auctions as a sustainable alternative to buying new items, a sentiment also echoed by Gen Z buyers – a 2019 Forbes report found that 62% of Gen Zs prefer to buy sustainable products. While manufacturing new items creates waste and pollution, auctions provide a chance at a new life for second-hand pieces. Many well-crafted designer items like handbags and watches last a lifetime anyway, so well-preserved pieces are just as good used as they are new.

Going for luxury items

Luxury items like fine jewelry, watches and handbags were some of the most-searched items on Barnebys in 2021. Many people had extra disposable income from not traveling or going out as much during the pandemic, and auctions provided a safe and convenient way to get a shopping fix. Items like diamonds and limited-edition designer handbags also accrue in value, and since many people choose to invest in hard assets during uncertain times they became a popular alternative investment during the pandemic. This may have contributed to the rise of new collectors: Sotheby’s noted in a year-end report that 50% of their watch buyers in 2020 were new to the category. Rolexes was one of the top-searched brands on Barnebys in 2021 and saw a 50% increase in traffic in Spain, an 84% increase in Italy and an astounding 701% increase in France.

Chanel purse, photo from Dorotheum

Buyers also chose to buy luxury items at auction because of cost and quicker gratification. While a limited-edition Prada bag will almost certainly achieve a higher price at auction than it did retail, something like a standard Chanel flap purse that’s still in production will be less expensive second-hand and still in excellent condition. Designer brands are also famous for having fantastically long waiting lists – qualified buyers have been rumored to wait up to three years to receive a new Rolex Daytona. Although buying at auction isn’t as quick as ordering from Amazon, it’s still a much faster process than braving the waiting list for an in-demand brand. There’s also the bonus of a huge selection, such as discontinued or limited-run products that are no longer available in stores.

Redecorating with second-hand furniture

A collection of vintage furniture, photo from Lucas Hoang

Since intermittent lockdowns forced people to stay home more than ever before, many people took the opportunity to refurbish and redecorate or create new spaces like home offices. Used furniture and décor were popular categories over the year, and they’re a sustainable and unique alternative to buying new items. Retro is in, and searches for ‘vintage’ items increased by 31% across all Barnebys markets globally in 2021. While some buyers preferred mint-condition antiques, others sought out inexpensive pieces that needed a little TLC. Many people had to discover new at-home hobbies, and refurbishing used furniture and doing DIY projects became a favored pastime.

Hobbying with stamps and coin collecting

Stamp collection, photo from Ali Bakhtiari

Another hobby that has experienced a resurgence over the past few years is stamp and coin collecting. In fact, Books, Coins and Stamps became one of the top five most-searched categories on Barnebys for the first time ever, replacing Porcelain as the fifth most popular category. Seasoned collectors had more free time to search for new additions, and new collectors welcomed a new passion. There is a certain thrill in finding exactly the stamp or coin you’ve been looking for and great satisfaction in completing a collection, and these simple pleasures were welcome during the global turmoil of the year.

For the bibliophiles

Antique book, photo from Danika Perkinson

Reading was a great escape during the pandemic, and many people sitting at home chose to travel the world through literature. Sales of new fiction in 2020 grew by 16% in the UK, according to the World Economic Forum, but buying new books can add up quickly and purchasing at auction proved to be an affordable way to satisfy a book fix. The accessibility of online auctions also made it easier than ever to find specific and hard-to-find editions, whether users were searching for a collectible edition or simply an out-of-print childhood favorite.

Although the continuing Covid-19 crisis made 2021 another difficult year, auction houses have managed to adapt to better meet the needs of collectors and casual shoppers alike. Digital catalogs have made it simple to find what you’re looking for, and services like live-streamed auctions add the excitement, entertainment and human factor that was missing from purely virtual auctions. Accessibility is key when buying online, and sites like Barnebys make it easy for users to find pieces at auction anywhere in the world. The future of the auction market lies beyond national borders, and now shoppers can connect to the global marketplace in a way that’s never been possible before.

Download the full report at Barnebys Group


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