LONDON (Reuters) - Everyone who is anyone in the art world was in London last week for a series of sales and fairs.
The trouble is, too many collectors left their checkbook behind in the clearest sign yet that the global financial crisis has finally caught up with the art world. Experts warn that things are likely to get tougher.
A far bigger test for a market which had largely defied the gravity of economic gloom comes next month, when Sotheby's and Christie's, the two dominant auction houses, hold major sales in New York. The Art Basel Miami Beach show follows in December.
"Now is not a brilliant time to be selling -- people are facing such a complicated financial situation they are not prepared to do anything," said Philip Hoffman, chief executive of the Fine Art Fund Group.
"The market place is much tougher, and in light of what's happened in the financial markets, the art market cannot be immune to it. Liquidity is tighter everywhere."
London has just hosted the annual Frieze Art Fair, which has become synonymous with the big-spending rich and super-rich as they pay astronomic sums for choice paintings and sculptures.
After years of rapid growth, the mood among dealers this year was more cautious, and at glitzy champagne receptions and pricey dinners across the city the talk was as much about financial meltdown as about fine art.
Auction houses selling some of the best works on offer were not spared, with Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips de Pury holding weekend sales that fell well short of the low estimates -- something almost alien to the art market in recent years.
But while experts acknowledge that there are problems, they point out that art values are still historically high and that a single week's sales in London was not enough to sound the death knell for an extraordinary bull run.
"It is far too early to announce the demise of the market," said Charles Dupplin, art expert at specialist insurer Hiscox.
"One set of sales which have come at a time of particular horribleness in financial markets, which must affect people's confidence, is not enough to say the party is over in the art market," he added.
Dupplin and others pointed out that compared with stocks or other traded instruments, the art market was far less transparent, and what went on in the showrooms of top auction houses and galleries was only the "tip of the iceberg."
"DOWN BY A HALF"
Activity in the giant marquee at Regent's Park that houses Frieze each year was neither frenzied nor frozen.
"There were sales, but I think there was also a lot of brave talk," said Georgina Adam, art market editor of The Art Newspaper who followed Frieze closely. "One leading gallery told me that its sales were half what they were last year."
Overall, she expected conditions on the art market to get worse, although the value of the rarest pieces should be underpinned by wealthy collectors keen to acquire the best.
"Even a crash in the art market is not terribly damaging to anybody," she said. "I think we will continue to see prices slide and we will see damage in the middle market.
"The very top, which is a bit like the property market, will probably still continue to find buyers, albeit at slightly lower prices."
The art market's meteoric rise in the last three years has been underpinned by rich buyers from Russia, the Middle East and Asia looking to build collections and seek alternative forms of investment as values for stocks, oil and property tumbled.
Although many of them remain extremely wealthy, they have begun to feel the pinch, with oil prices roughly half their peak of three months ago and the Russian stock market, for example, hitting its lowest level since June 2005 last week.
On Friday, Sotheby's sold contemporary art worth 22 million pounds, short of pre-sale estimates of 31-43 million pounds.
Two days later Christie's made 32 million pounds again well shy of expectations of between 58 and 76 million pounds.
Both auction houses said they were pleased with the results, although Adam said sellers had to lower reserve prices in order to find buyers.
Now attention turns to New York, where in May a Francis Bacon triptych sold for $86 million (50 million pounds) in a new post-war auction record and a Lucian Freud painting fetched $34 million (in a record for a living artist.
The following month in London, a Monet water-lily painting went under the hammer for $81 million, doubling the previous auction record for the artist, while a Damien Hirst sale raised $198 million in September.
While the art market party may not be over yet, many experts suspect such levels will not be seen again for some time.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)