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Auction houses see sharp decrease in art-sale proceeds

LONDON – The mood was frosty at London’s Frieze Art Fair. Bidders were sparse at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Even Andy Warhol’s multicolored skulls failed to lift the art world’s gloom.

A week of slowing sales and sagging prices suggests the global financial meltdown has finally ended the art-market boom that saw paintings and sculptures become must-have commodities for the world’s elite.

At Sotheby’s and Christie’s – where price records have tumbled regularly in recent years – the major autumn auctions of contemporary art generated at least a third less money than predicted, with many works going unsold.

“A lot of the froth and hype has gone from the contemporary market,” Melanie Girlis, art market editor of the Art Newspaper in London, said Monday.

Art world observers have been predicting a crash since the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis began rippling around the world. Many of the buyers driving the art world sales frenzy were hedge fund and private equity millionaires – among the first to suffer as the credit crunch took hold.

But prices stayed high, thanks in part to Russian and Middle Eastern buyers who were insulated from the worst of the economic woes.

In May, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought two paintings by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud for a total of $120 million. Last month, a Sotheby’s auction of works by Britart star Damien Hirst defied market jitters by generating almost $200 million.

Now, however, the economic crisis has spread around the world, bringing stock market turmoil, failing banks – and plunging art prices – in its wake.

Christie’s postwar and contemporary sale Sunday raised less than $55.5 million, against a pre-sale estimate of $100 million to $132 million. Twenty-one of the 47 lots failed to sell.

Sotheby’s contemporary sale Friday raised a total of $38 million, below the presale estimate of $54 million to $75 million. The star lot, Warhol’s pop-art paintings of human skulls, sold for $7.5 million, below the estimate of $8.7 million to $12.2 million.

Both auction houses said they were pleased with the results, which some observers had predicted might be even worse.

Cheyenne Westphal, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s Europe, said bidding had been “rational.”

She said that while pre-sale estimates had proved overoptimistic, “the sale was assembled in a very different economic environment from that which prevailed today.”

William Ruprecht, Sotheby’s chief executive officer, said “there’s no question that there’s a reduction in price that some people are willing to pay for objects.”

“I do not look at the marketplace … as in any sense frozen or not moving forward, be it with some price adjustments, because that’s what’s happening. There’s a price adjustment going on in a number of categories where there’s been big price appreciation,” Ruprecht said.

He added that the demand and interest from the United States was “a surprise to us” and that some longtime collectors, particularly in the U.S., see the falling prices as an opportunity to find a bargain.

At auctioneer Phillips de Pury, Saturday’s contemporary art sale generated only $8.6 million, less than a third of the pre-sale estimate. The auction house blamed the extreme financial market volatility, which it said was leading buyers to take a “wait-and-see” attitude.

The glitter quotient at Frieze Art Fair remained high this year, as everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow and Sofia Coppola to Abramovich and his gallery-owning girlfriend Daria Zhukova came to inspect the work of 1,000 international artists in a tented mini-city erected in London’s Regent’s Park.

The fair did not release sales totals, but said the figures had “exceeded expectations.”