This exploration of the recent news reports about Damien Hirsts market and the actual prices paid over the last decade is available AMMpro subscribers. First time monthly subscribers get a 30-day grace period. Curious readers are welcome to subscribe to the monthly option and cancel before being billed.
Perhaps the strangest turn in the coverage of the art market this month has been the two prominent pieces on Damien Hirst at a time when his diminished standing has not seen a dramatic rise—or fall.
First we had David Colman’s profile of Hirst in New York Magazine which seems like a leftover piece that got held during the run-up to the Hirst’s Venice launch this Spring. Except there’s one addition:
According to Hirst, as of early November, the show had already generated $330 million in sales.
Anyone following the Hirst market, in general, and his Venice show, in particular, knows that the Hirst may be able to make that $330m claim but most likely the buyers are what can best be described as engrossers, not end users.
Around the time of the Venice opening, there was a lot of chatter in the press suggesting strong demand. That chatter came from collectors already heavily committed to the Hirst market, many of whom are active buyers and sellers.
Privately there was very little talk of buyers in Venice. If the world was waiting for yet another comeback from Hirst (the Bacon-like paintings, the global spot extravaganza, and, now, the deep-sea treasures,) it would seem we’re going to have to keep waiting.
Meanwhile, Felix Salmon takes to The New Yorker to further garble the picture with an argument against a straw man. To Salmon, art market opinions from the likes of Sarah Thornton and Robin Pogrebin are foolishly dismissive of Hirst after the apex of his market in September of 2008 as the global financial crisis entered its first jolts of dislocation:
That auction marked the end of Hirst as an art-market darling: his auction volumes and prices dropped, and bitter collectors who had spent millions on his art were left with work worth much less than what they had paid for it.
Salmon goes on to offer a finger-wagging lecture about the difference between the private market for art sales and the public market of auctions:
To judge Hirst’s fortunes by looking at his auction results is to completely miss just how successful he has been over the past decade. Hirst has been happily selling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of art to more-than-willing collectors while effectively sidelining the auction houses, where collectors sell their works. He has even, sometimes, circumvented the entire gallery system, where most artists sell their work to collectors in the first place. Hirst has built an extremely pure and effective business; it’s just not visible in the way that public auctions are.
Part of the problem here is that Salmon either naively (or disingenuously) presents Hirst’s claims from Venice at face value. In Salmon’s mind, Hirst is having the last laugh because he gets the primary sales on his work even if his secondary market is supposedly a disaster. But Hirst hasn’t circumvented the gallery system. The Venice shows were sold by Gagosian’s team, a return of the prodigal artist to the gallery that helped expand his market. That return is something of a tacit admission on Hirst’s part that he service his primary market himself.
There’s also another, more important dimension to the private market: the high volume of resales completed by Hirst’s present and former dealers along side the engrossers and collector dealers buying and selling highly recognizable Hirst works. Behind the headlines of the 2008 Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale was a high volume of dealer buying. Add the works that were said to be defaulted upon after the sale (and the true scale of the financial crisis became clear) and you have several years supply of private market material in dealers’ hands.
For all of Salmon’s hand-waiving about the pessimism surrounding Hirst, the market for his recognizable and already validated and easily sold works has remained fairly constant over the last decade. Spot paintings, Spin paintings, butterfly works and a variety of the cabinets (pill, diamond and medicine) have sold consistently over the years following the 2008 sale.
You can see in the chart at the top of the post that the spike of 2008 was followed by a steady total auction sale with a rise and fall in the average price. Don’t forget that Hirst also got two big prominent boosts from the 2012 double-header of his Gagosian-spanning Spot painting exhibition and the London Olympics cultural showcase of a Tate retrospective that was one of the museum’s most attended shows.
It is very clear from the success of those 2012 shows and the consistent market for Hirst’s recognizable works—but not for anything the artist has dreamed up since the Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale—that Hirst is a mainstay of the Contemporary art market. Even with the muted interest in the works from the Venice show, Hirst had a good year in 2017 with his auction volume returning to above 2011-2012 levels when he sold around $25m worth of work.
2017 hasn’t been an unalloyed success for Hirst, the October sales in London saw the failure of an early work that many market watchers assumed would do well. But in New York’s recent sales cycle, Hirst bounced back with a solid sale of $11m in art at auction. Of the eight works on offer in New York, half sold within the estimate range but another two works went for prices below the low estimate and two failed to find buyers. That’s not a strong showing even if the overall dollar volume was up.
Damien Hirst on His Notorious Venice Show (New York Magazine)
The False Narrative of Damien Hirst’s Rise and Fall (The New Yorker)