THE readjustment taking place at the top end of the contemporary and modern art market was once again in evidence at the latest flagship London auction series.

Sotheby's European chairman Henry Wyndham on the rostrum with Picasso's Homme a l'épée, which made the highest price of the series selling at £6.2m to a private collector.

As buyers continued to be cautious with their spending, the difficulty in getting vendors to consign top works was also clear as last week's slimmed-down sales saw totals down by over three times compared to last year.

With the auctioneers having all but stopped issuing guarantees and with vendors choosing to hold on to their property rather than sell in a deflated marketplace, the catalogues at both Sotheby's and Christie's were much thinner both in terms of the quantity and quality of the works on offer.

Christie's evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art on June 23 offered 44 lots, of which 30 sold for a hammer total of £32.4m. This was below the £36.9m-50.2m pre-sale estimate and a hefty drop-off from last summer's £126.9m raised from 81 lots.

The top lot was Claude Monet's (1840-1926) Au Parc Monceau which generated a three-way bidding competition and sold above estimate at £5.6m.

It was one of a handful of works that made tidy profits for their vendors in spite of the downturn. It was last seen in the saleroom in 2001 when it sold at Sotheby's for £3.4m after being restituted to the Kainer family. Here it was estimated at £3.5m-4.5m and was knocked down to an anonymous telephone bidder.

Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern art evening sale the next day totalled £29.3m against a presale estimate of £26.7m-37.2m with 23 out of 27 lots offered here sold. The top lot was Pablo Picasso's (1881-1973) Homme à l'épée, from 1969, which made the highest price of the series, selling to a private collector at £6.2m.

Estimated at £6m-8m, this was the first time it had been on the market and it was subject to an irrevocable bid.

This depiction of a musketeer was exhibited at the Palais des Papes in Avignon in 1969-1970 and was selected for the poster advertising the exhibition. Christie's also had a version of Homme à l'épée at their evening sale, which Picasso had painted the day after the one seen at Sotheby's. It was arguably less striking and, crucially, it was not fresh to the market having been at auction recently when Christie's sold it in February 2005 for £2.4m.

Offered here with a £5m-7m estimate, it sold to a European dealer for £5.1m, providing a tidy return for the vendor.

Sotheby's day sale of Impressionist and Modern art, as with their evening sale, made a total within its estimate. With 157 lots of the 187 on offer getting away on June 25, the total was £10.3m against presale predictions of £9.8m-13.7m.

Sotheby's deputy director and one of the specialists in charge of the day sale, Georgina Fletcher, said: "We kept this sale very focused and concentrated on quality rather than quantity, while also carefully considered the pricing. We tailored the sale for the current market and assembled a very balanced spread of prime Impressionist and Modern works."

Christie's Impressionist and Modern day sale on June 24 also saw a decent selling rate as 145 out of 191 lots sold for a £7.77m total.

Sotheby's Contemporary art evening sale on June 25 also went within its pre-sale estimate of £19.8m -27.4m. However, the £21.9m total was well down on last year's equivalent sale, which made £82.4m.

Only three of the 40 lots failed to sell, with the top price coming for Andy Warhol's (1928-1987) silkscreen Mrs McCarthy and Mrs Brown (Tunafish Disaster), which sold below estimate at £3.3m.

Christie's Contemporary art evening sale took place on June 30 netting £16.2m, just below its presale low estimate.

By Alex Capon