Fairs Market Comment United Kingdom

How Hirst’s sale raised the stakes

Auction houses are now playing the gallery game

Damien Hirst went straight to buyers at his Sotheby’s mega-auction in 2008. Picture: © Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Was it only five years ago that Damien Hirst staged his exceptional auction (“Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”) of new work through Sotheby’s? At the time, the idea of an artist going straight to auction, bypassing his galleries—which were then the two heavyweights, Gagosian Gallery (FL, C13; FM, C11) and White Cube (FL, F7)—and going straight to buyers, was shocking. Now, this seems a great deal less surprising: last week, Christie’s and Sotheby’s opened their own branded galleries in London. Both say that although their focus is on the secondary market, they have not ruled out first-time sales, which is already the norm in their other international locations (particularly for Asian art).

In London, Christie’s is privately selling 29 works from the “Untamed Series” by the South African sculptor Dylan Lewis, which have not been on the market before (five works are on show in Berkeley Square, until 30 December). Meanwhile, Sotheby’s is hosting its regular, eye-catching exhibition at Chatsworth (until 27 October), where half of the 20 sculptures are being sold on the primary market (although, Sotheby’s insists, this is always done hand-in-hand with an artist’s dealer). This represents a gradually growing percentage since the event began in 2006, and follows the exhibition’s increasingly contemporary feel. This year, for the first time, Sotheby’s is also selling 16 contemporary craft works, commissioned for Chatsworth’s interior from lesser-known artists, many of whom do not have a dealer.

Charity auctions have been another way for auction houses to enter the primary market, and these are increasing both in number and in the headline-grabbing nature of the works available. This week, Christie’s is selling 14 works straight from artists, including Chris Ofili and Goshka Macuga, to raise funds for London’s Gasworks organisation (King Street, 19 October).

Five years ago, it was easy to see why Hirst decided to go straight to auction with his new material: he was the biggest name in the contemporary art market. The growth of the Bric economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China), plus significant interest from the Middle East, added to the demand for the Hirst brand, a demand not met by the exclusive waiting-list approach of his galleries.

The auction also gave Hirst the benefit of £96m of the sale’s total £111m proceeds (the remainder went to Sotheby’s). Had he gone through his galleries, he would have given them a greater share of the sale price (galleries take, on average, 50% commission in the primary market, although a superstar artist usually negotiates this down). It is doubtful whether the same confidence could even have been sustained the following week: Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy was announced on the same evening as the auction began, triggering a icy sobering of the art and stock markets.

Although the auction’s success did not, as some feared, lead to a slew of artists copying Hirst (not many could or can produce enough material, let alone generate enough excitement), it certainly gave the auction houses the potential to be all things to all people. The primary market was no longer a no-go area.

The phenomenon, while accepted, is not popular in the trade. However, those on whose turf it largely treads—increasingly corporate galleries such as Gagosian—do not themselves command much sympathy. In an environment of “sales by any means”, picking bones about who is making them seems irrelevant.

Five years after the Hirst auction, the spread of the auction houses into the primary art market seems like a natural evolution. Globalisation is forcing the art trade at the top end to think more internationally. The number of private buyers at auction, whether in the saleroom, on the phone or online, is growing: in China, it is estimated that half of all primary sales are conducted through auction. New buyers trust the auction brands, like their (relative) openness on pricing and respond well to the accessible approach afforded by auctions. Private galleries, with their secrecy, coded language, inner circles and variable pricing, not to mention waiting lists, blacklists and grey lists, arguably had it coming.

The market’s judgement can be harsh, however, and today’s superstar artists would be well-advised to keep an eye on what has happened to Hirst before whisking their works from their galleries to auction. The artist’s market has corrected downwards by an average of 30%, according to Businessweek magazine, despite Hirst’s solo exhibition at Tate Modern in 2012. This was the museum’s most popular show for a single artist, but was not enough to stop Gagosian and Hirst parting company after a swansong global tour of the artist’s “Spot” paintings. So it is fortunate for Hirst that White Cube, the gallery that helped to make and manage his career, has stood by him. Artists, take note: selling is not the same as representing.

The writer is The Art Newspaper’s art market editor (Europe, Asia, Africa)

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