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ATG understands that at Christie’s sale of antiquities at King Street on October 13, long-time trade clients were asked for the first time to produce a credit or debit card when registering to bid and, after the sale, were told it would not be possible to pick up any purchases without full payment.

While this is general policy for most clients, it is not unusual for regular trade buyers to be offered a grace period of perhaps a month before settling a bill.

In an effort to calm the disquiet, dealers were informed that the change of policy had not been of Christie’s making but rather was a temporary measure.

The new terms and conditions were available for consultation on the front desk.

Christie’s sought to play down suggestions that the credit crunch had played its part in the new conditions. “We are modifying our policy with respect to releasing property to encourage clients to use our new credit card facilities that we introduced in September,” press officer Matthew Paton told ATG.

Up to a limit of £75,000, Christie's will now accept payment in person by MasterCard and Visa credit at no extra charge. The previous transaction fee was one and a half per cent.

“We will continue to offer extended payment terms to buyers on high-value lots whenever these terms are matched and agreed by the seller. All lots bought with extended terms must be held by Christie’s and not released until full payment has been received as has generally been our policy,” added Mr Paton.

But as the news emerged, Sotheby’s and Bonhams sought to make a little capital out of Christie’s situation.

“Sotheby’s is open for business, and pleased to consider any client requests as we have in the past,” said Sotheby’s publicity director Matthew Weigman. He added that Sotheby’s liquidity and cash position were at an all-time high. The company recently borrowed $250m as “a defensive step to ensure additional liquidity in response to the recent turbulence in the global financial markets”.

Bonhams European CEO, Matthew Girling, commented: “We see no reason to change our credit arrangements due to the current market turmoil – on the contrary, we hope that in these difficult economic times they will continue to prove of assistance to our valued trade customers.

“When, three years ago, we moved to protect clients’ funds – through the adoption of ring-fenced trust accounts for client money – we worked out the best credit terms we would be able to sustain in our dealings with the trade.”

By Roland Arkell