As experienced art dealers discussed the £95.6m sale of 233 new works by Damien Hirst (b.1965), it was the word 'celebrity' that cropped up the most to explain the phenomenal prices seen at the Beautiful Inside my Head Forever sale.
Like anything that can be traded, art is only worth what someone
is prepared to pay, and enough people were prepared bid up the
animal tanks, butterfly canvases, spin pictures and spot paintings
for Hirst surely now to feel bountiful inside his wallet
The 56-lot evening sale on September 15 saw a £61.2m hammer
total against a pre-sale estimate of £43.2m-62.3m. Only two lots
were unsold, and they went immediately after the sale.
This was followed by a further £34.4m from the day sale with
only three unsolds.
There was cheering and whooping from Sotheby's staff at the
press conference - perhaps a reflection of just how much was
riding on this auction.
The pre-sale omens were not ideal. A story emerged that 200
works by Hirst remained unsold in the stockroom of his London
dealers White Cube, while some jitters had been seen in the Hirst
market at this summer's round of contemporary art auctions. Hirst
himself had steadied the ship with the announcement his workshop
would cease production of spin and butterfly paintings.
The evening sale also came on the blackest day on Wall Street
since 9/11. The collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers and the
announcement of a rescue package by the Bank of America for the
take-over of Merrill Lynch added to the sense that this could be
the moment when the contemporary art bubble finally bursts.
According to reports, some traders were betting on just that by
taking 'short' positions on a predicted fall in Sotheby's share
But the first lot set the pace for the sale. Heaven Can
Wait, a large triptych with butterflies estimated at
£300,000-500,000, took £850,000.
It was bought by White Cube's Jay Jopling, vigorously chewing
gum as proceedings got underway. Perhaps he had more to lose than
A spokesman from White Cube told The Times that they
had bid on 20 of the lots at the evening sale. There was also
bidding from Hirst's New York dealer Gagosian and New York dealer
Alberto Mugrabi who bought two works.
The most prolific buyer at the evening sale, however, was a
European private collector bidding on the telephone manned by
Sotheby's Alina Davey, a Russian-speaker who works for Sotheby's
private client group in London. This buyer purchased eight works
including the most strongly contested lot, Fragments of
Paradise, a 9ft-wide stainless-steel cabinet containing
thousands of manufactured diamonds. It sold well beyond its
£1m-1.5m estimate for £4.6m.
Sotheby's, who had undertaken their "most novel and
comprehensive marketing campaign", reported an unprecedented number
of new buyers across a broad geographical range. There were 750
registered bidders over the two sales.
Eighteen per cent of the buyers at the evening sale were new to
Sotheby's, with a quarter coming from the emerging markets.
Furthermore, 35 per cent of the buyers were new to Sotheby's
contemporary art department.
The top lot was The Golden Calf, a Charolais bull in
formaldehyde on a Carrara marble plinth with hooves and horns
plated in 18 carat gold. With interest in the room and three
telephones, it was knocked down to a telephone at £9.2m, a new
auction record for the artist.
When asked after the evening sale how the auction prices
compared to what would have been charged in a gallery, Sotheby's
senior international specialist Oliver Barker said they were
greater. However, this is difficult to judge as the galleries who
deal with Hirst do not make their prices public.
The speculation before the sale was that the estimates were
pitched around 20 per cent lower than gallery price levels in the
hope of encouraging bidding. Ultimately three-quarters of the lots
went over their top estimate when premium was added.
One claim that was less justified was that Hirst had made great
savings, consigning new works directly to auction. Hirst and his
canny business manager Frank Dunphy are thought to have negotiated
deals with their galleries where they receive between 80 and 90 per
cent of the sales. This return would be largely equivalent to the
premium charged by Sotheby's, where a work that sells for £1m
attracts a premium of just over 16 per cent.
Either way, the success of this sale will provide a useful
bargaining tool for the Hirst camp in future negotiations with
Despite the huge media attention, Damien Hirst himself was
apparently nervous before the sale and spent the evening playing
snooker. But the world's most talked-about artist said afterwards:
"I think the market is bigger than anyone knows. I love art and
this proves I'm not alone and the future looks great for
But outside Sotheby's that evening was the lone voice of a
single protester saying she was campaigning for "real artists".
By Alex Capon
further facts from the Damien Hirst sale, click here.
dealers' reaction to the Damien Hirst sale, click here.