Monday, August 4, 2008

Damien Hirst - rewriting the rules of the market

Roger Bevan | 10.7.08 | Issue 193- The Art Newspaper

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.

Sarah Thornton | 17.7.08 | Issue 193 - The Art Newspaper

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 back room 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 coown 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-fromthe-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.”

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