The “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” auction tests the market
Let’s start with the assumption that the experts at Sotheby’s have made a good survey of the market (see below) and are fairly confident that they can move all of the art Damien Hirst is planning to sell on September 14th and 15th in London. (Though one assumes there are no guarantees here so the auction is relatively risk-free for the house.) With that firmly in mind, Sotheby’s announced today the size and scope of the Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale (including The Dream, left, estimated at between $4-6 million.) The sale will be 223 lots (divided into a day and evening sale) and is estimated at 65 million pounds! (That’s $130 million in funny American money.)
But the estimate isn’t really the issue. Hirst’s market performance continues to be strong despite a few recent failures of spot and spin paintings. The issue is the type of work on offer and its quality. A quick look at the release reveals that Hirst has stocked the sale with his greatest hits–including another shark (The Kingdom, below, estimated at between $8-12 million), spot paintings and medicine chests. Like the Auction (Red), many of the pieces are worked in a gold theme. Will this make them unique enough to add value to Hirst’s overall market?
Whatever one thinks of Hirst’s art, there is little in the sale that does not seem either derivative or, perhaps, tone deaf. Fans of Hirst’s work will tell you that his art is about death. But a gold calf seems more like Hirst trying channel Jeff Koons than a commentary on decay. Do the Unicorn and Zebra, let alone the Shark (Mark II), represent forward movement in his ideas and work? Or is this just an attempt to re-harvest value that escaped the artist the first go round. In some ways, the BIMHF auction is a work of art in its own right commenting on the nature of value and artistic production.
The whole strategy of this sale is based upon the success of the Pharmacy sale–and the release harkens back to that success often. If you weren’t paying attention back in 2004, the Pharmacy sale was 168 lots and made $20 million. Many of the lots were decorative items, so the important comparison is what Hirst’s market was like before and after the sale. Before that sale market watchers, like Anders Petterson, predicted that the Pharmacy sale would ruin Hirst’s market by putting too much material out there without the controlling effects of dealers. The sale had the opposite effect, less a dilution of the market and more like pouring gasoline on a fire.
Four years later, we’re in both a different art market and different market for Hirsts. The highest price for a Hirst was paid last summer when Lullaby Spring brought in around $19 million at Sotheby’s in London. The Art Newspaper says the work was bought by the Al-Thani clan. Maybe they’re in the market for their own shark. Only Sotheby’s and Hirst’s dealers no for sure. Here’s Sotheby’s Oliver Barker in the Guardian. He was behind the bringing the Pharmacy sale to Sotheby’s:
“Damien Hirst is still an artist punching above his weight – this is a body of work which takes him into new realms,” he added. “It would be so easy to say we’ve seen it all before with Hirst, but I think people will be blown away by the scale and ambition of this collection. I think he’s interested in getting work into parts of the world that have not had the opportunity of buying major pieces before, including India, China and Russia – and we’ve certainly had a lot of interest from collectors in these places.”
One wonders how Hirst’s dealers missed all of these passionate collectors. Speaking of the dealers, many art world insiders–including Josh Baer–predict the sale will be a huge success. They cite many reasons. Baer is careful to say that the sale will “appear” to be successful. Others suggest that intramural struggle between Hirst and his dealers will force the dealers to buy the works if only to show Hirst that they can make money placing them privately.
For versions of this opinion, look at The Art Newspaper and Richard Bevan here:
The artist’s regular dealerships . . . are obliged to support, or underwrite, it for the sake of their clients who have invested in Hirst’s career . . . . 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 points to the auction as sign of the end times here:
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.
She hedges with this:
True believers, however, see Hirst’s abundant serial output as essential to his oeuvre.
Or this from The Times of London:
There are pertinent questions about the timing of the venture, coming soon after several new and vintage Hirsts went unsold at Art Basel, the world’s biggest art fair.
Richard Shone, editor of The Burlington Magazine, the fine arts periodical, said that the auction was the latest in a long line of publicity stunts that were threatening to swamp Hirst’s critical standing as an artist: “His reputation is a little wobbly now.”
Last year the artist generated headlines around the world by selling a skull encrusted with diamonds for £50 million. It was reported later that the artist was part of the investment group that bought it.
Mr Shone said that Hirst’s profile would overshadow the intriguing possibilities raised by the auction. “I think it does offer a way forward for other artists but I wish it had been someone like Rachel Whiteread, another great figure from that generation but one who positively avoids publicity, who was behind it. Then people would really have sat up and taken notice.”
Sotheby’s is also compressing the time schedule dramatically: the catalogues are only being sent out at the end of August, just a couple of weeks before the auction. It’s all very feverish, and one can be sure that the sale itself will be mobbed with paparazzi and celebrities. I’m not entirely clear on how genuine bidders will even be able to be sure of getting in, but I’m sure they’ll find a way somehow.
It isn’t quite clear how Salmon thinks the BIMHF sale differs from a normal marquee auction where the catalogues come a few weeks before the sale and tickets are limited. Perhaps he’s unaware that Sotheby’s has been working it’s client list since the sale was announced and will accommodate most of the buyers by assigning them a representative to bid according to their instructions via telephone. But Salmon has more to say about the likely effects of the Hirst sale:
My prediction is that the lower-priced works will exceed their estimates quite comfortably. A large colored-pencil dot drawing, for instance, is estimated at £30,000 to £40,000, and will surely sell for more. Meanwhile, a significant number of works incorporating diamonds will help to set a base level for the famous skull, if and when the consortium which owns it ever decides to sell. And almost certainly the total for the sale constitute the largest sum of money ever spent on the work of one artist at one time. It will make headlines, which will only drive Hirst’s values up ever higher.
Could it all go horribly wrong? Well, yes, anything can go wrong. But I suspect this particular sale won’t. The art bubble will surely burst at some point, but I don’t think the Hirst single-artist sale will mark the inflection point.
Today’s announcement brings us one step closer to answering all of these questions which can only come with the sale in September. With the announcement of the Yves Saint Laurent sale in Paris in February, the next auction cycle has very clear bookends–and the potentil for a lot of excitement in between.