After a bumper turnover in 2007 the market contracted, and predictions for this year have been gloomy. Tonight’s sales at Menzies Art Brands and Deutscher and Hackett will be a test of how the downturn is affecting the Australian market.

Internationally, results have been mixed. At last month’s Yves Saint Laurent art collection sale, prices soared above their estimates, making the event the most lucrative private collection sale on record. A sculpture by the French Impressionist Edgar Degas sold last month through Sotheby’s in London for a record $29.5 million but other valuable works failed to sell. At an auction of Australian art at Christie’s in London late last year little more than a third of the paintings sold. Sotheby’s and Christie’s have announced lay-offs to cut costs.

In Australia, auction houses are treading carefully as they prepare for the first big auctions of the year. Menzies Art Brands and Deutscher and Hackett have reduced their sales targets and priced works at the lower end of their value.

At Menzies’ major fine art auction in Kensington there are relatively few big-ticket items. The highest valued work is a 1959 oil on canvas by Russell Drysdale, Diver, Broome . Its estimate is upwards of $600,000. Two years ago it sold for $720,000.

In Melbourne, Deutscher and Hackett’s inaugural Aboriginal art sale contains only a few works valued at more than $100,000. The sale is expected to turn over between $2 million and $2.8 million, far less than the company’s fine art catalogues estimated last year.

“We are approaching with caution,” says Damian Hackett, one of Deutscher and Hackett’s executive directors.

“The plan was to present a really tight, interesting and saleable auction, full of really good things in the under $20,000 range, plus a small number of things in the $100,000 to $150,000 range. We haven’t given ourselves the massive pressure of having to sell half-million dollar paintings to break even.”