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Damien Hirst ignites the saleroom with his first appearance in auction

Five bidders competed for a Hirst painting

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A routine sale of Post-War and Contemporary British Art, a category invented nearly six years ago in order to provide a shelter for those British artists not considered to be sufficiently popular or valuable to warrant inclusion in the international Contemporary Art schedule, was illuminated by five bidders engaged in passionate competition for a pharmaceutical or “spot” painting by Damien Hirst (cover lot 133, est. £8,000-12,000) being offered at Christie’s on 22 May. With two abstract canvases by Callum Innes, two relief sculptures by Langlands and Bell and two acrylic shelf sculpture paintings by Julian Opie, it had been consigned by an unidentified German collector and was the first test in auction of Hirst’s market resilience. The successful telephone bidder, calling from Italy, but not necessarily an Italian collector or dealer, paid £28,000 (without premium). His final bill of £32,200 was exactly twice what might have been the retail price being asked by Hirst’s gallery, White Cube, for a similar painting and serves as a reminder that auction is capable of leading as well as following the primary market.

The result, and the method by which the canvas was marketed, has sharply divided opinion. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, leading London private dealer Ivor Braka, who had hoped to acquire the painting but was forced to drop out of the bidding competition, said, “It’s a totally reasonable price. Hirst is a sound and established artist with consistency and logic behind his production and the “spot” paintings are an absolutely integral part of his work.” But other observers were concerned by the regal treatment which Christie’s accorded to a decorative composition which was hardly unique. By some estimates, Hirst has produced more than 100 similar pictures during the last seven or eight years, and the decision to hang this example against black velvet and protected by a rope might be construed as an excessive gesture.

A large monochromatic painting of Mornington Crescent (lot 51, est. £50,000-70,000), executed by Frank Auerbach in 1961 and consigned by an American collector, fetched £170,000, the highest price of the afternoon. Elisabeth Frink’s “Lying Down Horse” (lot 86, est. £90,000-130,000) was sold for £98,000, but there were no bids for her “Horse and Rider” (lot 60, est. £140,000-180,000), one of the most significant sculptures of her career, underlining the unpredictability of large sculpture at auction. Prospective purchasers require more time than auction allows for considering the placement of such work and its consignment to a gallery or private dealer would have improved its prospects.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Spotting the bidders'

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