Hirst’s Heist & Other Market Myths

What is it about the art market that draws out the nutters with their elaborate conspiracy theories based upon nothing but envy, hurt feelings and a pallid imagination? The Guardian published a long essay this weekend from novelist Hari Kunzru that would have earned the writer derision had he published it as fiction. Kunzru repeats as fact the cartoonish character of the hedgie-turned-art-speculator-and-market-manipulator without offering one credible fact for this assertion.

Although Kunzru has no evidence to back up his assertions, we can easily falsify an number of his simple-minded claims. The first is that Damien Hirst is the world’s richest artist living artist. Kunzru seems to pick that up from the press but has nothing to support the claim but his very limited knowledge. It’s unknownable who is the artist with the greatest net worth. But we have had reports that the recently deceased Cy Twombly left an estate far greater than Hirst’s supposed net worth. Maybe that was an anomaly. But Just because we hear a great deal about Hirst that doesn’t mean Hirst’s significance—economically or art historically—is equal to his publicity.

Kunzru commits the same sin of lazy thinking when talks about hedge fund owners as art buyers:

This is how it works. A few major collectors make the market. Where they lead, the horde of hedgies follows. Many of the new breed of art investors (not Cohen, who is known to be a man of great taste and exquisite legal representation) have jettisoned even the pretence of connoisseurship. Some of these guys care about the bragging rights that come with a blue-chip work hanging in the loft. Others are all about the numbers, and employ the same tools and decision-making processes to play the art market that they use at work. A few have also discovered that many of the regulatory mechanisms that apply in other markets – preventing insider trading, price-fixing by cartels and sundry other abuses – simply don’t exist in the art world. It is possible to game the system in many ways, and the careers of certain artists look not unlike a classical Ponzi scheme, where money from new investors is used to pay returns to those further upstream.

Since 2005, observers have been predicting the dire effects of having seasoned traders as art collectors. Yet most of the identifiable hedge fund buyers have been either patient and thoughtful collectors—Rachofsky, Cohen or Sender, for example—or bought works by canonical artists (sometimes getting burned like Pierre La Grange.) Like the popular myth of dark billionaire commissioning daring thefts from the world’s great museums to fill the walls of his secret lair, the hedgie art market manipulator remains a figment of lesser imaginations.

Consider the truth of the eerily-timed 2008 Hirst sale at Sotheby’s. No one really knows the details about who bid, who bought and, most important, who paid. Even without knowing the buyers (Hirst’s dealers were in there playing as were other substantial holders), we do know that the sale and the credit crisis have conspired to stop the Hirst market cold. Even the elaborate Complete Spots show, contrary to Kunzru’s perfervidly imagined scheme, has failed to re-ignite the overall Hirst market or even the market for Spot paintings. So the big, bad Hirst might not have pulled of much of an art market heist after all.

Kunzru clearly doesn’t know any of this. But why let a little research get in the way of a good screed.

Why not have something to say about Hirst’s art which isn’t that hard to dismantle once you take away all of the teeth gnashing over Hirst’s earnings. Blake Gopnik offers this handy dismissal:

Julian Stallabrass, a Courtauld Institute pro-fessor and the smartest of the anti-Hirstians, the “supposedly universal values” that Hirst appeals to are easy and empty clichés. “The surprise is that people haven’t gotten more bored with the objects, considering he keeps repeating them.”

Damien Hirst and the great art market heist (Guardian)

Damien Hirst Repackages Warhol for Our Times and Sells Himself (Newsweek)