The New York Times’s Robin Pogrebin wraps the news that Damien Hirst is holding a selling exhibition during this year’s Venice Biennale in some interesting market news and commentary.
First up is the way the work is being sold. Gagosian Gallery is managing the sales by having their specialists meet with potential buyers and show them work on an iPad so the images cannot circulate in advance of the show at Francois Pinault’s two Venice spaces.
The second is the idea that this is Hirst’s “third prong” in a scheme to create a “second act.” The first and second were his private museum opening in London and return to Gagosian.
In truth, since the Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale in 2008, Hirst has made several attempts to move on with new art work—there was the ill-fated attempt at painting like Francis Bacon sponsored by Victor Pinchuk and shown at London’s Wallace collection—and revive his market with stunts like the global Gagosian show of spot paintings.
Neither of those efforts was successful in re-creating the Hirst juggernaut that existed prior to the 2008 direct sale and, perhaps far more importantly, the dawn of the global credit crisis the same week which fundamentally transformed the global order.
That last detail—the dramatic and persistent ways in which the world has changed since September of 2008—may have far more consequence for Hirst’s market than the admittedly significant fact that Hirst has not been able to create a compelling new body of work since.
Pogrebin went to some significant market participants to get a better sense of what bedevil’s Hirst’s market:
“In many ways that auction marked the beginning of the end,” said the dealer Helly Nahmad.
Where his pill cabinet “Lullaby Spring” sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for $19.2 million, for example, his pill cabinet “Lullaby Winter” sold at Christie’s in 2015 for $4.6 million. More recently, one of his spot paintings sold in Sotheby’s contemporary art day sale in November for just $396,500, considerably lower than the $1.7 million they sometimes fetched in 2013.
“People inexplicably bought into that sale, precipitating a downward market death spiral that took us all down with them,” said Adam Lindemann, the collector and dealer, referring to Mr. Hirst’s all-Hirst Sotheby’s auction. “His market collapsed and hasn’t really revived since.
All of this is true. And though both Nahmad and Lindemann are far from dismissive of Hirst’s work—especially the early work—and whether it can maintain lasting market value, some of this is overwrought.
Hirst’s market has been a shadow of its former self since the Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale pulled so much demand forward. To sell so much art in one 24-hour period was bound to depress future demand. There was also the problem of how much of the sale was bought by Hirst’s dealers and engrossers to protect their own holdings and prices. Directly related to that is a question of how much damage was done to those interested parties by the dramatic re-calibration of Hirst’s market. Finally, there have been persistent rumors that many bidders in the 2008 sale reneged on their commitments in the weeks and months after as the magnitude of the credit crisis began to sink in.
With all of that militating against Hirst’s market, it is actually remarkable that there have been any Hirst transactions in the last few years. Although prices are down by large margins, as Lindemann points out, the work does continue to trade providing solid evidence of real demand.
Pogrebin’s example of the pill cabinets from the Lullaby series is a good case in point. The $19.2m price paid by the Qataris for Lullaby Spring was an aberration. As previously documented on this site, the sale came within six weeks of another example from the Lullaby seasons series which made a very strong $7+m. Thus a price drop from $7m to just under $5m, as painful as that might have been to an owner, is not exactly an example of a market collapse.
Similar price action has been seen in Hirst’s other series like the spots, medicine cabinets and vitrines. Over production and variable quality have always been issues with Hirst’s market. His genius in 2008 was the seeming ability to turn those liabilities into a sales frenzy around the Sotheby’s auction.
Since that time, Hirst’s own misfires have held his market back. Perhaps this new body of work will revive interest in his best pieces from the past.