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All American sourced goods will be transported to Sotheby’s Olympia, which will hold three sales, rather than two, of Japanese art next year.

Explaining the reorganisation, Sotheby’s managing director Henry Howard-Sneyd said: “If the Japanese were buying heavily in their collecting fields then things would not have to change.” But the decision to trim the Japanese department in New York can also be explained by two other factors – Sotheby’s cost cutting drive that has already resulted in 150 job losses since the start of last year, and the recession in the US economy, compounded by the Afghan war, which has hit demand for traditional areas of western taste in the Japanese market, such as netsuke and inro.

This was made clear by the collapse of selling rates at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s autumn round of Japanese sales, with less than 40 per cent of lots finding buyers, compared with consistent selling rates of 60-70 per cent in sales since 1998. Markets of traditional Japanese taste such as lacquer, calligraphy, textiles and pottery have been depressed since the Japanese economy went into recession in the early 1990s. But the fragmentary nature of the market may offer Sotheby’s a route out of the current impasse.

“It is clear that people do not collect across the board and that grand catalogues tailored to the top end of the market simply do not work any more,” said Mr Howard-Sneyd. “We may consider separate sales of prints, netsuke or tsuba in the future,” he said.