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Hirst auction not for us

Sotheby’s 2008 sale “pushed boundaries of what is believable” says Christie’s boss

Ed Dolman

NEW YORK. Christie’s would not have staged the famous Damien Hirst sale, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, which was held at Sotheby’s London on 15 and 16 September 2008. “I think the Damien Hirst sale had pretty extreme inherent conflicts of interest that, to my mind, probably pushed the boundaries of what is believable in an auction and what isn’t, so I don’t think we as an auction house would have taken that sale on in that form,” said Christie’s chairman Ed Dolman at a panel discussion (see video) in New York last month.

On the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world’s economies began to freefall, Hirst shattered precedent by consigning 223 new works direct to auction including hallmark pieces such as the formaldehyde sculpture, The Golden Calf, which sold for £10.3m. Two hundred and eighteen of the works on offer found buyers in a three-session sale that totalled £93m. Three works made more than £5m, and 18 fetched over £1m. “The sale was magnificent, a triumph,’’ said London dealer Ivor Braka in an interview at the time.

It is unknown whether Hirst dis­cussed a potential sale with Christie’s, which held the first successful sales of the artist’s work at auction in May 1996 when the spot painting—and catalogue cover-lot—Ad­reno­chrome Semicarbazone Sulf­onate, 1992, sold for £32,200. Sotheby’s also had a strong relationship with the artist, having hosted the sale of items from his Pharmacy restaurant in 2004. This made a total of £11.1m, far in excess of the pre-sale estimate of £3.5m to £4.9m.

Dolman’s disclosure was prompted by a question posed by Manhattan-based old master dealer Richard Feigen, a fellow panellist at the discussion, “Trans­parency in the market…can we have more of it?”, held jointly by the Art Dealers Assoc­iation of America and The Art Newspaper. “Do you know what the real market for Damien Hirst is?” quizzed Feigen, adding that he did not “know anyone who knows what a Damien Hirst is worth”.

Hirst’s tactic of staging a single-artist sale of new works was designed to entice new buyers: the artist had by this stage produced such a volume of work that, despite international gallery representation, he still wanted further outlets. The sale succeeded in growing the market according to Sotheby’s, which said that 39% of the buyers had never bought contemporary art before and 24% of the buyers were new to the auction house. But, some question the figures: “The sale was just before the crash in the stock market; how many of those sales were concluded…?” asked art advisor Allan Schwartzman, also on the panel at the debate. The auction house declined to comment.

Since this landmark sale, the volume of Hirst work at auction has fallen considerably. Schwartzman, who said that he has never recommended a client to collect Hirst, called the artist the “Franklin Mint of art works”, referring to the producer of limited-edition, low-brow collectibles, such as royalty or TV-themed items. He added: “Usually art is valued because the supply is limited and there is a greater number of buyers than works to satisfy them, but this is an artist who has commonly produced to the full extent, and more than what the market has wanted, so it has really defied the patterns of a market that I understand.”

Despite a panning from the press for his painting exhibition held at London’s Wallace Collection in 2009, Hirst remains a globally recognised brand. Commercially, he continues to find new markets: his suspended dove, The In­es­capable Truth, 2005, was the first formaldehyde work to sell in the Far East when it went to an Asian collector for £1.75m at Art HK last May, according to White Cube gallery. His first ever solo UK survey show is expected to pull in the crowds when it opens at Tate Modern in 2012, intentionally scheduled to coincide with the Olympics.

While Hirst remains a controversial figure, he has “secured his place in art history”, said critic Jonathan Jones in an article for The Guardian newspaper. He wrote: “[Hirst] can fart around for 20 years painting in his shed if he wants to. We critics can hurl our insults, but he is much cleverer than us. He knows good taste is for fools.”

The “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” sale was not to the taste of Christie’s Ed Dolman (below)
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