The rise and fall of Damien Hirst is an oft-told tale of hubris and nemesis. An art-world superstar in the nineteen-nineties and early two-thousands, Hirst made white-hot works—the most infamous of which involved animals immersed in formaldehyde—whose prices only ever went up. He got rich, his galleries got rich, his collectors got rich, everybody was happy. But, then, in 2008, he got a bit too cocky when he auctioned off two hundred million dollars’ worth of art, fresh from his studio, at Sotheby’s, bypassing dealers entirely. 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.
These days, though, those collectors don’t seem to be so bitter after all. Hirst says that sales from his latest show, in Venice, reached a jaw-dropping three hundred and thirty million dollars as of early November. Even accounting for inflation, that’s substantially more than the two hundred million dollars he racked up at the Sotheby’s auction in 2008. Maybe that day didn’t mark the top of the Hirst market after all.
So why do many knowledgeable observers—from Sarah Thornton in The Economist, in 2012, to Robin Pogrebin in theTimes, this past February—think that Hirst became a persona non grata in the art world, stripped of his relevance and power? The answer comes from Pogrebin, who explained in May that she was looking mainly at auction prices:
The auctions enable me to be privy to what’s happening in the art market—who’s buying and what certain artists are selling for. I can watch, for example, how auction prices for the once red-hot artist Damien Hirst have declined and then decide to do a story on his recent attempts at a comeback.
This approach is the art-market equivalent of the drunk man looking for his keys under the lamppost, just because that’s where the light is, even though he has no particular reason to believe that they’re there. 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.
To evaluate Hirst’s fortunes by examining the visible market for his works made sense only until September 15, 2008. After that, Hirst started selling his work directly to collectors, at scale, and stopped playing by the established gallery-system rules. Hirst’s galleries were furious, but there was nothing they could do about it. Freed from gallery constraints, Hirst could make the work he wanted to make, and sell it at whatever price his collectors were willing to pay.
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