$476  million was the net decrease in auction sales at Sotheby’s in the first three months of this year over the same period last year, a 71 percent decline.

"Good business is the best art."—Andy Warhol

All those Sotheby's International Realty signs around town have little to do with the famous New York City art auctioneers. They're franchises, trading on the Sotheby's name and its association with luxury.

But that association may not last: Real estate is doing about as well as art. And Sotheby's—the auction house company—was recently declared to be "junk."

At least, that's the word Standard & Poors used on May 5 to describe the auction house's new BB corporate credit rating.

On May 20, Sotheby's holds its annual American Indian Art auction in New York. This year's auction features some indigenous New Mexico art from a collection in Taos. Santa Fean David Roche, who's managing the auction for Sotheby's, is optimistic. But it'll be a surprise if the auction approaches the $3.6 million sales total it did last year.

Overall, S&P expects the art auction biz "will remain depressed."

"There's no question the economy is a factor in almost every sale, but only to a degree," Roche says. "It's a mistake to think of the art market in monolithic terms."

The outlook is mixed for local auctions, too.

"The number of people buying art on any platform is down," Peter Riess, vice president and executive director of the Santa Fe Art Auction, says. "You're not seeing a ton of phenomenal art coming to auction right now because the risks are too high."

There is an upside, Riess says: "As a buyer, you're in a good negotiating standpoint."

Reiss notes there haven't been enough high-end Western art auctions to compare that segment of the market—a big one in Santa Fe—to others.

At Altermann Galleries & Auctioneers, some collectors and buyers "are going right along like it's nothing," Carol Redetzke, assistant to owners Tony and Richard Altermann, says.

According to Redetzke, business is up since this time last year. Altermann sold 70 percent of the offerings at its last auction in March. And the company just opened a new Santa Fe warehouse last week.

But in a sign of decreased expectations, Altermann will cut back from four auctions a year to three.

"We were worried that we've got a lot of people who want to sell and not enough people who want to buy," Redetzke says. "The prices have lowered."

Who knows? Burning 10 or 20 G-notes on a horse painting might be smarter than dropping them on a two-bedroom foreclosure.