This analysis of Damien Hirst’s market since the global financial crisis—using data gathered with the help of Athena Art Finance—is available to AMMpro subscribers. Subscribers get the first month free on monthly subscriptions. Feel free to cancel at any time before the month is up. Sign up for AMMpro here.
It seemed like everyone involved in the art market was posting from Venice this past weekend. The flood of images from Damien Hirst’s dual venue show, The Wreck of the Unbelievable, piqued our interest in the dynamics of the Hirst market.
The Venice shows are a risky (some reports estimate the cost of fabrication and presentation at £50m) business venture and an even more perilous critical exposure for Hirst. His last attempt to debut new work—his show Francis Bacon-inspired paintings made with his own hand—was a critical rout and a cul-de-sac for new ideas and further cultural relevance.
The show is also a return, after four years of Hirst managing his market himself, to the sales force that created his initial out-sized success. That sales force may have a greater effect on his market than even the success or failure of this new body of work. At least, that’s the inference to be drawn from looking at the public sales records at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips over the last 10 years.
Here’s a chart of Damien Hirst’s sales over the last ten years. The red bars are total sales volumes (right axis) and the blue line is the average price of those sales (left axis.) For this analysis, we will ignore the peak of Hirst’s market in the years 2006-2008. But first, let’s briefly look at the extraordinary market story that culminated with Hirst’s sale at Sotheby’s in September of 2008, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.
The dynamic of Hirst’s market was surely altered by that enormous, unprecedented and unparalleled event. We will never actually know whether the sale changed Hirst’s market (by pulling future sales forward) or the global financial crisis fundamentally altered demand for his work. That’s because the sale neatly and symbolically coincided with the beginning of the financial panic.
Whatever the reasons, for our purposes it is more useful to look at the period from 2009 when Hirst’s auction volumes were a fraction of the previous year’s totals. Still, we can take a step back and look at the run-up in Hirst’s market. In 2006, $8.8m worth of Hirst’s art sold. The next year, auction volume was nearly 10 times the amount at $82.7m.
If that vertiginous rise were not enough, 2008 saw auction volume more than triple again to $263m. Yes, $198m of that volume came from the Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale. Had only $65m in Hirst’s art been auctioned in 2008, that still would have been nearly eight times the volume of just two years prior, an extraordinary market performance.
In 2009, the Hirst market effectively started from scratch. Auction sales were $12.5m, nothing compared to the previous two years but still almost a 50% advance over 2006. It is clear that even in the wreckage of the global financial crisis, Damien Hirst had a meaningful market.
Over the next three years that market advanced consistently. No doubt, Hirst’s dealers helped guide that market forward with private sales and support for works at auction either by representing buyers or underbidding works. The market peak of 2012 coincided with Hirst’s triumphant retrospective at the Tate Modern presented as the keystone of the cultural programming supporting the London Olympics.
Hirst also used 2012 to return to his natural talent as a showman by producing the worldwide extravaganza around his spot paintings. That event was hosted by Gagosian which gave over all of its global gallery space to the show. It may not have been the spots or the sales support or the Tate show, or some combination of the the three that caused Hirst’s sales to peak in 2012. Nevertheless, Hirst left Gagosian in 2013. The spot promotion was over. And auction volume dropped 13.5%—and stayed in that range for the next three years.
Although there was a slight sales rise in the period from 2013-2015, a dramatic 29% fall came in 2016.
The only conclusion to draw from these numbers is that Hirst’s market is drying up without the infusion of new work to re-affirm his relevance as global artist.
Price volume only tells part of the story. After the double whammy of the spotacular and Tate retrospective, Hirst’s overall price level rose to a peak in 2013. It’s worth pausing here to point out that average price rising when sales volume falls is not a bad sign for an artist’s market. The two combined suggest there was less of Hirst’s work for sale in 2013 but buyers and sellers were agreed on the new price levels.
Hirst’s market showed signs of consolidating in 2013. It ought to have been the beginning of a new phase of potential growth. But that was the same year that Hirst decided to end his relationship with Gagosian. Unfortunately, the peak of 2013 was followed by a long slide into 2016’s nadir.
Last year, Hirst’s average price at auction fell below 2009 and 2010’s low water marks. Because of that—and widely noted—Hirst’s auction estimates have been revised lower and lower. The good news is that works that do sell are bid upon. The estimate reset has brought buyers in line with sellers and the premium ratio (the selling price divided by the low estimate) shows works selling, in aggregate, somewhere mid-estimate which means there is competition for the works. That competition has been consistent over the last two years.
Quality is always an issue with Hirst. His best work is in a different price category from much of his other work. And there’s a good chance this new body of work could fail to intrigue and delight buyers. If that does turn out to be the case, the Hirst market may have found its level here.