Sotheby’s Bond Street rooms were packed for their evening sale of contemporary art on October 19, but the auction series witnessed a considerable downturn in demand.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

Frieze, conducted from a tent in Regent's Park from October 15-18, did not witness the bun fight of previous years, while the salerooms were badly hit as the £66.25m combined auction total came in under half the estimated value.

Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips de Pury had all asked consigners to lower their reserve levels before the sales after receiving indications that demand would falter following the worst crisis in banking and the financial sector since the Great Depression.

Phillips de Pury's evening sale on October 18 was the worst affected. The £4.16m total was under a quarter of pre-sale expectations and the selling rate was 54 per cent.

In a statement, the company, who announced earlier this month that they had been taken over by the Russian luxury goods giant The Mercury Group, said: "A number of vendors did not wish to revise their price expectations downwards, preferring to hold on to their works rather than selling them for less."

They also said that for the crucial next round of contemporary sales in New York in November they have "almost entirely eliminated" giving guaranteed prices to vendors.

Christie's contemporary art evening sale the day after totalled £28m hammer, well below the pre-sale low estimate of £57m, with the selling rate at 55 per cent. Of the six guaranteed lots, three failed to find buyers.

Sotheby's evening sale on October 17 made £18.8m hammer against a £30.1m pre-sale low estimate. They managed to sell 73 per cent of the 62 lots but, after a number of works were offered with revised reserve levels, the majority of lots that found buyers went for under their low estimates, in some cases substantially less than predictions.

This included the top lot of the sale, Andy Warhol's Skulls, which was guaranteed and estimated at £5m-7m. It sold at £3.85m to New York dealer Alberto Mugrabi.

Reports in the national press that the five-year boom in contemporary art is over may be premature but a period of readjustment is doubtless upon us.

Members of the trade told ATG that estimates and reserves need to fall if the market is to hold up against the current climate.

A full report of the contemporary auctions and the Frieze Art Fair appears in this week's Art Market section of the ATG printed newspaper. To Subscribe, click here.

By Alex Capon