Hirst: Calling the Top

20080915_107.jpgHirst ubiquity has now reached the point at which even sober-sided finance types like Nadav Manham have noticed it. Manham asks what I think, and so I’ll stick my neck out: I’m calling a top in the Hirst market.

Calling a bubble is relatively easy; calling a top is much harder and riskier. But I smell desperation in the acres of coverage that Hirst is getting: he’s being a bit too cavalier with his quotes, his dealers are going on the record about how they’re very annoyed at him, and even the behind-the-scenes Frank Dunphy is being pushed blinking into the limelight to drum up ever more press.

Marion Maneker has a regular feature entitled "Today in Damien Hirst", which is now coming out multiple times per day. Le tout culturati is feeling compelled to weigh in on the Hirst auction, from Ian Jack to Richard Lacayo to Waldemar Januszczak to Melik Kaylan: the list never seems to end.

And to top it all off, Hirst is on the cover of Time. Even Warhol never achieved that — he illustrated the cover, more than once, but was never himself the subject. The last artist to achieve that was Rauschenberg, more than 30 years ago, in 1976. But the real parallel here is with Robert Hughes’s cover story on "Art and Money" in 1989, which pretty unerringly managed to pinpoint the top of that art market.

I’m glad that the millions from the Sotheby’s auction will accrue directly to Hirst: he’s more deserving of them than the collectors who’ve been flipping his work at Sotheby’s up until now. And it’ll be fun to see the art-world cognoscenti peering down their noses at unknown bidders waving their paddles around in a most unseemly manner. But at this point Hirst and Dunphy are running into the laws of economics.

Hirst has done a magnificent job of riding the Veblen curve: demand for his works has only increased as their prices have soared. But that curve can’t keep on rising forever, and September 15 — the Hirst evening auction — will mark its high point. Hirst can try to keep raising his prices after that, and the diamond-studded skull is now said to be on the market for well over $250 million, but he won’t find buyers any more, only sellers.

Which is fine by Hirst: dynastically wealthy already, he’s scaling back production dramatically; any downturn in his prices has no ability to hurt him. Indeed, the whole superheated market in his works is his greatest artwork of all, and the golden calf at Sotheby’s is Hirst’s way of making collectors pay through the nose for an artwork which openly mocks their ambitions and idolatry.

When flash mobs were revealed to have been an elaborate sociology experiment, there was a feeling that people wouldn’t have joined in if they’d known that all along. Amazingly, for the time being, Hirst has been able to get today’s nouveau riche to want to participate in the joke, even though it’s on them. But after this auction, the joke will start getting older than the one-liners on Richard Prince paintings. Which will probably crash in value at exactly the same time.

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