Hirst at Sotheby’s

A pair of unembeddable YouTube videos appeared quietly last Friday, and have made not much of a splash: Damien Hirst Beautiful Inside My Head Forever 1 and

Damien Hirst Beautiful Inside My Head Forever 2 have been viewed less than 400 times between them. But they were the first hints of the marketing campaign for a £65 million, 223-lot Sotheby’s auction of new Hirst works which is scheduled to be held in London over two days in mid-September. Maev Kennedy’s article on the sale comes with a slideshow of some of the works; the press release has more pictures still, but of course it’s the estimated prices which are the center of attention: zebra in formaldehyde,

£2 million to £3 million. Shark in formaldehyde,

£4 million to £6 million.

Calf in formaldehyde, complete with solid-gold hoofs,

£8 million to £12 million.

The press coverage of the sale concentrates on Hirst’s disintermediation tactics: by cutting out his gallerists, Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian, he’s maximizing his own personal take from the sale. But I suspect that Jopling and Gagosian will still be bidding on behalf of clients, and otherwise intimately involved; in any case, Hirst and his business manager Frank Dunphy, rather than Hirst’s galleries, have been the people most in control of the market in Hirst’s work for some years now.

The real risk here is not that Hirst will alienate his gallerists. Nor is 223 lots so big relative to the size of the existing Hirst market that the sale risks flooding the world with too many works and bringing down prices. Rather, if all goes according to plan, Hirst’s prices will only rise as a result of this sale: an unknown number of hitherto unknown bidders, the kind of people who balk at negotiating with galleries about waiting lists and the like, will turn up because they reckon they have a good chance of walking away with something. Low estimates start at £15,000, and Sotheby’s will probably sell an enormous number of catalogues at between £65 and £80 apiece; these in themselves are likely to be marketed as collector’s items.

Sotheby’s is also compressing the time schedule dramatically: the catalogues are only being sent out at the end of August, just a couple of weeks before the auction. It’s all very feverish, and one can be sure that the sale itself will be mobbed with paparazzi and celebrities. I’m not entirely clear on how genuine bidders will even be able to be sure of getting in, but I’m sure they’ll find a way somehow.

My prediction is that the lower-priced works will exceed their estimates quite comfortably. A large colored-pencil dot drawing, for instance, is estimated at £30,000 to £40,000, and will surely sell for more. Meanwhile, a significant number of works incorporating diamonds will help to set a base level for the famous skull, if and when the consortium which owns it ever decides to sell. And almost certainly the total for the sale constitute the largest sum of money ever spent on the work of one artist at one time. It will make headlines, which will only drive Hirst’s values up ever higher.

Could it all go horribly wrong? Well, yes, anything can go wrong. But I suspect this particular sale won’t. The art bubble will surely burst at some point, but I don’t think the Hirst single-artist sale will mark the inflection point.

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