Damien Hirst is rewriting the rules of the market (1)

Damien’s divide and conquer policy may prove to be one of his cleverest

The final frontier protecting contemporary art galleries from the relentless encroachment of the auction houses has been emphatically breached with the announcement that Damien Hirst is creating an exhibition of new works for display and sale at the London headquarters of Sotheby’s.

The preview of “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, as the exhibition is titled, will launch the new art market season on 5 September while the auction itself is scheduled to take place over two dates, 15 and 16 September, suggesting that a catalogue of at least 40 major works will be offered on the evening of the earlier date with an extended day session of more affordable material including smaller paintings, preparatory drawings and editioned objects to follow. Since the final selection of consignments has not yet been agreed, no value has been attached to the package but it promises to be a highly profitable occasion for Hirst and for the auction house which has established a close working relationship with the artist ever since it sold the residue of the Pharmacy restaurant on his behalf in 2004.

In addition to hosting “The Red Auction”, the season’s most fashionable charity event which was conceived by Hirst and Bono and took place in New York on 14 February 2008, Sotheby’s has turned out to be the room of choice whenever the artist acquires art at auction. Recent purchases include Francis Bacon’s small self-portrait which cost $33,081,000 at Sotheby’s New York on 14 November 2007 and a stainless steel statue by Jeff Koons for which Hirst paid £3,156,500 at Sotheby’s London on 27 February 2008.

The centrepiece of the auction will be The Golden Calf (estimated at £8m-£12m), a new natural history sculpture of a bull with a golden halo and gilded horns and hooves, which Sotheby’s contemporary art department regards as the most important work of his career besides The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the famous sculpture of a tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, which Greenwich hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen acquired in 2004 from Charles Saatchi for a price reported by the Saatchi Gallery as $12m.

Hirst is said to regard the step of offering new material at auction as a logical development in his career but the broader implications of his decision are profound. It is widely known that auction houses have courted the emerging markets of China and India. Leading names without a firm gallery representation in London or New York have been encouraged to consign works to its catalogues. Furthermore, artists such as Jeff Koons and David Hammons have, in exceptional circumstances, placed new or historic work in auctions in order to maximise value or circumvent a dealer obligation.

But Hirst has crossed the market’s Rubicon with a gambit which opens a new front for an admittedly very special situation: an artist with brand name recognition and a factory enterprise capable of producing a completely new series of seasonal variations to order. At a stroke, the judicious management of an artist’s career by an agent who identifies which favoured collectors will be permitted to acquire material in conditions of secrecy gives way to the triumph of the highest bidder on the public stage. Now that Damien has demolished the moral barrier of using auctions for distribution and profit, other artists will follow suit.

The artist’s regular dealerships, Gagosian Gallery and White Cube, will not like the development one little bit, but are obliged to support, or underwrite, it for the sake of their clients who have invested in Hirst’s career and for the continuity of their own relationships with the income stream which he provides. They will be bidding against each other for Damien’s attention as much as other prospective collectors will be bidding for themselves. Damien’s divide and conquer policy may prove to be one of his cleverest and most entertaining strategies to date.

The writer is a regular contributor to The Art Newspaper

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20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


It's great for any artist to go straight to the auction houses instead for fighting with middle men, dealers, collectors and galleries. What about secondary sales? My dealer sells my piece for $20,000; I get half, $10,000 and the dealer resells for $80,000. Why can't I get 5 or 10 percent of the $80,000? Everyone is laughing all the way to the bank except me.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


While Damien Hirst (British artist) is praised for his stratagems of using the auction house as a commercial tool for exhibiting his works, this phenomenon is common to the Asian auction market, which began as suddenly as the contemporary art scene itself. Especially in China, artists and galleries continue to use the auction records as benchmarks for market prices. This is not a question of morals but of commercial practice--does this kind of transparency benefit the art market in the end?

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


See the Young British Artists strip in the last issue of Private Eye - the gallery owner's stuffed, or rather pickled...

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