October 2008, A Burst for Hirst

October 2008, A Burst for Hirst
Damien Hirst cartoon supplied by the author


This is a week for history, a week where the world’s of high art and high finance came together for one bombastic dance while big banks on Wall Street went belly up and the world’s most far reaching insurance agency had to be bailed out by the man. For two days Sotheby’s teamed up with British artist, Damien Hirst, to put on the first ever solo auction of new work by a living artist, “Beautiful Inside my Head Forever.”

The auction included 223 works made in the last two years. In two sessions 218 piece sold, records were pulverized, and at the final pound of the hammer Hirst and Sotheby’s took in $200.7 million. The last artist to set a record for a solo auction at Sotheby’s was Picasso in 1993, which brought in $20 million for 88 pieces. 

 They may have cashed in, but they had to work for it. Sotheby’s reinforced their show room floors, a pricy endeavor, to support Hirst’s gargantuan tanks of formaldehyde (“The Golden Calf” alone weighs in at 11 tons). And of course there was a major marketing blitz. Not only were select pieces flown to New Deli and the Hamptons to entice potential collectors, but the whole of Sotheby’s New Bond street location was transformed into a veritable Hirst retrospective. The catalogs were printed in limited edition and priced at $100 apiece—usually they’re in the $25 to $50 range. And for his part Hirst exhibited his art world savvy, inviting collectors to his home for first looks at new in the studio and announcing the end of the line for his spin and butterflies paintings, and a drastic reduction of dead animals and dots. By all accounts Sotheby’s went all out, an impressive gamble in a year that has seen their stocks drop nearly forty percent. 

 The top lot, which broke Picasso’s record on its own, was the “The Golden Calf”, a white bull in a behemoth tank of formaldehyde with golden horns and hooves and a solid gold disc for a halo. It went for $23.6 million. “The Kingdom”, a tiger shark in formaldehyde, went for $17.1 million. Hirst even sold the contents of his ashtray, “Grave Matters”, a pile of fag ends soaked in household gloss for $220,000.

 The Butterflys, spins, and dots mostly met or exceeded their estimates. The dot work, “AUROTHIOGLUCOSE,” punched through its high estimate to reach $1.2 million. “Afterlife” a butterfly piece reminiscent of a stained glass window estimated between $1 million and $1.7 million soared all the way to $2.5 million. “Heaven Can Wait” the lead off lot, a tripdytch Spin painting, estimated between half a million and a million reached $1.7 million.

 Hirst put up a few works on paper, and what appeared to be rough preliminary sketches for his formaldehyde sculptures (or possibly his children’s own playful sketches of the floating beasts) often exceeded their market estimates. “The Golden Calf Drawing” estimated between $89,000 and $142,000 sold for $260,000. “The Kingdom Drawing” estimated between $35,000 and $54,000 went for $206,000. “Time to Kill Drawing” also estimated between $35,000 and $54,000 went for $96,664.

 Of course there were some pieces that just barely reached their low estimates and others that failed to do so completely. “Pigs Might Fly”, a piglet with dove’s wing floating in formaldehyde in a gold plated case sold for $872,139, below its estimate of $990,000 to $1.3 million. “Beautiful Resolution Spin”, a rectangular spin with a florescent 80’s color scheme estimated between $50,000 and $70,000 only reached $42,442. Possibly the largest flop, “The Incredible Journey”, a full size Zebra in a formaldehyde tank estimated between $3.5 million and $5.3 million only went so far as $1.9 million.

 Explaining why he chose to send work straight to auction rather than offering it to his dealers—the most notable Gagosian Gallery and Mr. Joplin’s White Cube—Hirst explained it was “a more democratic way of selling art.” Of course it also cuts out a hefty dealer’s commission for the artist.

 Hirst has emerged as Britain’s newest billionaire and reasserted himself as a bellwether of the art world, sending a sign to artists around the world that they don’t need a gallery when they can use an auction house. Of course this is only an option for brand name artists, so don’t be surprised when we see Koons at Christies or Richard Prince at Phillip’s. 

whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Charles Schultz

Charlie Schultz was born in 1982 and raised on an equestrian farm in
central Pennsylvania. He graduated from Bard College in 2005 and
currently lives and works in New York City.

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