Damien Hirst is rewriting the rules of the market (2)

Are primary dealers becoming cuckolds?

Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” sounds like the name of a new work by Damien Hirst, but it’s actually the title of his solo sale at Sotheby’s. The ambiguity is appropriate because Hirst’s rank as an artist is inextricably linked to his status as a headline commanding businessman who wields considerable power over the buying and selling of his own work. The “Beautiful” auction raises many questions, including: Is Hirst sabotaging his own market? On several stands at Art Basel last month, new and vintage Hirst works remained unsold. Hirst’s studios are not only extremely efficient in keeping his official dealers well stocked with a good range of spot, spin, and butterfly paintings, but in making direct sales themselves. At a time when some gallerists are experiencing a minor slowdown, one dealer suspected the artist of orchestrating an “end-of-boom fire sale” to accommodate his alleged over-production. True believers, however, see Hirst’s abundant serial output as essential to his oeuvre. Harry Blain, director of Haunch of Venison, whose backroom is busy in the trade of Hirst works, explained: “Just as Warhol and Picasso were highly productive, it is an important aspect of Damien’s market that he is prolific. There need to be enough works in circulation to sustain the growing global demand.”

Are primary dealers becoming cuckolds? Sotheby’s Senior International Specialist Oliver Barker claims that the sale has “the wholehearted support of Damien’s dealers…who recognise his rulebreaking charisma.” However, Jay Jopling, owner of White Cube, sounds a tad ambivalent. “8,601 flawless diamonds notwithstanding, ours has never been a traditional marriage,” he said in Sotheby’s press release, evoking the financial sacrifice his gallery made to co-own Hirst’s diamond skull when it didn’t sell outright. One collector close to both Jopling and Gagosian told me, “I love Damien’s work, but his treatment of his business partners is abusive and selfish.” Certainly many gallerists believe the auction is “a horrible precedent”. However, some view the sale as an almost philosophical event. As dealer-collector David Mugrabi explains, “It seems to be a game for Damien. He’s seeing if he can get away with murder, just as Duchamp did with his urinal.”

What are the strategies of the auction houses with regard to the primary market? Whilst Sotheby’s goes public with a straight-from-the-studio sale and is rumoured to be courting Takashi Murakami, Christie’s buys the multi-location primary gallery Haunch of Venison. According to Haunch’s director, “The two auction houses have entirely different approaches and relationships. Christie’s vision is more considered. It recognises the best interests of artists themselves. Damien is one of the few who could pull this off.” Interestingly, Phillips de Pury aligns itself with Sotheby’s move as senior partner, Michaela Neumeister, asserts, “This Hirst sale would have been a perfect project for Phillips. It’s so fast-forward. We have been the crossover pioneers of morphing business models. Art is all about transforming and border testing, but the dealer logic has been very conservative.” However, when artists become their own dealers, Dr Neumeister says, “I worry for their freedom and their peace of mind. It’s time consuming and distracting. That’s why it’s great Damien has his alter ego. Frank Dunphy [the artist’s business manager] is a genius.”

What will the auction contain? The answer to this question is the key to the success or failure of this high-risk event. With its solid gold eighteen-carat hooves and horns, The Golden Calf is either a decadent masterpiece or a derivative work targeting a nouveau billionaire. In the end, it is important to note that the sale is not guaranteed and to remember that Hirst’s personal collection is called “Murder Me”. So, one must agree with Sotheby’s Oliver Barker when he declares, “Damien is totally fearless. He’s not just an outstanding artist, he’s a cultural phenomenon.”

The writer is a regular contributor to The Art Newspaper. Her book, Seven Days in the Art World, is published by Granta in the UK in October and WW Norton in the US in November

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