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LONDON (Reuters) - A London auction of contemporary art fell well short of pre-sale expectations on Friday, the clearest signal yet that the financial crisis is affecting a market which hitherto defied growing economic gloom.
Sotheby's auction house raised 22 million pounds ($38 million) at its evening sale of contemporary art, held to coincide with the annual Frieze Art Fair in London.
That was far below the pre-sale estimate of 31 to 43 million pounds, and suggests that prices paid for high-quality art are no longer immune to plunging stock markets, oil prices and the broader credit crunch.
Sotheby's said it was pleased with the results.
"We are very pleased with the results of tonight's sale, which is the second highest total for an October sale of contemporary art at Sotheby's," said Cheyenne Westphal, chairman of contemporary art at Sotheby's in Europe.
"While our total fell short of its low estimate, the sale was assembled in a very different economic environment from that which prevailed today."
The highlight of the evening was Andy Warhol's series of 10 skull paintings. "Skulls" sold for 4.4 million pounds ($7.5 million), against an estimate of 5-7 million pounds.
The second highest price was set by Gerhard Richter's abstract painting "Abstraktes Bild (Rot)," which sold for 2.8 million pounds, below its estimate of 3-4 million pounds.
The results of the sale will raise concern among auctioneers, collectors and sellers, with Christie's due to hold an equivalent auction in London on Sunday before both companies stage key November sales in New York.
The art market boom of recent years has been fueled partly by growing interest from super-rich buyers in Russia, the Middle East and the Far East.
Top-end works have also been seen as a relatively safe bet compared with turbulence gripping other investments.
But the severity of falls in the value of equities, oil, property and other assets has left art vulnerable to a significant downward correction, experts have warned.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Tim Pearce