Hirst's Pigs May Not Fly as Crisis Investment
Source:Bloomberg Author:Martin Gayford Date: 2008-09-18 Size:
It is a striking and thought-provoking fact that on the same day that Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed, the first session of Damien Hirst's two-day auction at Sotheby's, London, took off like a rocket.

 

While the world's financial system totters, the shrewd money seems to be pouring into pickled unicorns and winged pigs. It is a striking and thought-provoking fact that on the same day that Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed, the first session of Damien Hirst's two-day auction at Sotheby's, London, took off like a rocket.

The whole affair exceeded estimates by fetching 111.5 million pounds ($199 million). We seem to be living in apocalyptic times just now -- thronged with sinister horsemen and seven-headed beasts -- so what do these strange creations of Hirst's portend?

Could this be Armageddon for a powerful section of the art market, namely the dealers, who appear to have been cut right out of the loop? Will the future be full of mega-sales of brand new art passing straight from the studio to the sale-room? Are the great galleries such as those of London's Hoxton and Soho doomed like the woolly mammoths of old to extinction?

The probable answer is ``no.'' Far from such auctions being the art-sales model of the future, it seems quite likely that there'll never be another one ever again. No other artist fulfills quite the same conditions as Hirst.

True, there are some who command similarly stratospheric prices and levels of fame. Lucian Freud, for example, is still -- even after this week's bonanza at Sotheby's -- the living artist whose work has reached the highest sum at auction, with his $33.6 million nude, ``Benefits Supervisor Sleeping.''

Still, each of Freud's pictures represents many hours of personal effort (as I found when I modeled for his ``Man With Blue Scarf''). A sale of recent work by Freud might contain, say, half a dozen works rather than two hundred plus. That wouldn't be the same.

Jeff Koons is the only other artist who both uses teams of assistants -- like Hirst -- and whose work is similarly expensive. Somehow, I can't see him following suit. One of these mega- auctions is an event; two might risk being boring. In fact -- though I may be wrong -- I doubt even Hirst will do this again.

He is unique in his panache and the fertility of his ideas. In fact, I suspect that the auction might have been a solution to the problem of his hyper-productivity. A few years ago, Hirst said this to me:

``I was in my studio yesterday thinking, Jesus Christ, will you give it a rest? There's this over-load of creativity. You think, who is this person? In a gallery, there is an artwork in a big white space. But in the studio there are 40 or 50 things piled up on top of each other. You think, who is this guy? He's insane.''

Well, the last two days have seen a considerable clear-out chez Hirst. I couldn't help feeling he would have done better to have kept some of those pieces at home. While there was some strong work on show at Sotheby's, there was also repetition, self-parody -- and just too much stuff.

Of course, in his current period, probably to be dubbed by future art historians his ``plutocratic period,'' Hirst uses quantities of gold and platinum. Still, I am not sure that his new work is the 21st-century successor to bullion under the mattress: a wise investment in turbulent times.

[Editor] Mark Lee

    Artintern