Art Market

How to Collect Works by the Young British Artists

Olivia Gavoyannis
Mar 29, 2021 12:00PM
Rachel Whiteread
IN OUT-XI, 2004
Luhring Augustine

The Young British Artists burst onto London’s art scene in 1988 when Damien Hirst brought together a group of fellow students from Goldsmiths College of Art to show their work in “Freeze”—an exhibition he set up in an abandoned warehouse. The group became notorious for their openness to materials, shock tactics, and visual puns, and in 1996 Art Monthly magazine coined the phrase “Young British Artists” (or “YBAs”) to describe the provocative new movement.

The rapid rise of the YBAs was due, in part, to their entrepreneurial attitude to self-promotion. “Looking back on it now, the determination of the individuals in the YBA generation was remarkable,” said gallerist Sadie Coles, who represents the work of foundational YBAs Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst. “Most of the initial shows were self-generated pop-ups in empty shops or warehouses. It was unstoppable and radical and a generational shift.”

Today, the seminal YBA works are some of the most recognizable, controversial, and expensive in contemporary art. And even though some of Hirst’s most iconic works sell for eight-figure sums—and he famously raked in $175 million from a blockbuster auction of new works at Sotheby’s on the eve of the great recession—the range of artists and materials in the YBA market makes it accessible for new collectors, if they know what to look for.

Understand the key figures of the movement


Although certain broad trends can be seen in YBA art, there is no one style or approach—so it’s important to research the artists individually.

The majority of the YBAs graduated from Goldsmiths with BAs in fine arts between 1987 and 1990. Their teachers there, including the artist Michael Craig-Martin (dubbed by some as the “godfather of the Young British Artists”), encouraged them to abandon the traditional distinctions between media and experiment with the expressive possibilities of different materials.

Jenny Saville
Separates, 2001
Grob Gallery

The YBAs took this spirit of openness and made it their own. Hirst preserved animals in tanks of formaldehyde; Tracey Emin displayed her own unmade, messy bed at the Tate; and Lucas stuffed nylon tights with wadding to transform them into the splayed limbs of female bodies. Other members of the group, including expressive painter Jenny Saville, post-minimalist sculptor Rachel Whiteread, abstract painter Fiona Rae, and multimedia artist Mark Wallinger, were also experimental in their approaches.

“Each of the YBAs had their own very different voice. The ‘group’ side of it was more social, along with a shared view of how to seize the moment,” said Coles. “There are now many publications on all of the artists, so the Tate bookshop is a good place to start—and the Tate collection online is a good point for research too.”

If money is no object, it’s all about the iconic works from the early 1990s

Damien Hirst
For The Love Of God, Pray, 2007
Damien Hirst
Cathedral Print, Notre Dame, 2006

According to Olivia Thornton, head of 20th-century and contemporary art at Phillips Europe, collectors will often be prepared to pay a premium for work from 1992 or 1993 over later pieces. “Some collectors may have a very specific, targeted approach to collecting YBA art and might only want to buy the very early works that were really at the genesis of the movement,” she said. “For instance, the early Damien Hirst spot paintings sell for significantly more than the later ones.”

Thornton said the media, scale, condition, and edition size of the work can also influence value, as well as how important it is in the context of an artist’s body of work. She said The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), a 13-foot tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, became the defining Hirst work after it was shown in “Sensation,” the Royal Academy’s controversial 1997 exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s YBA collection. Saatchi sold the work in 2004 to art collector and Museum of Modern Art trustee Steven Cohen for an undisclosed price, widely reported to have been at least $8 million.

Editions are a good starting place

Sarah Lucas, OOPS!, 2019. © Sarah Lucas. Photo by Robert Glowacki. Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Damien Hirst, Bodies, 1989. Courtesy of Phillips.

Some of the early YBA pieces have skyrocketed in value over the past 30 years. A case in point is Hirst’s degree-show medicine cabinet Bodies (1989), which prolific YBA collector Robert Tibbles bought for £600 in 1989 and sold for £1.3 million ($1.7 million) at Phillips last year. But for collectors who are just starting out, editions are an accessible entry point into the market.

Several editions by seminal YBAs sold for under £5,000 ($6,900) at Phillips’s editions sales in January: Emin’s artist book Exploration of the Soul (1994) sold for £4,410 (just over $6,000); Lucas’s photograph The Fag Show (2000) sold for £1,260 ($1,720); Hirst’s print Amniotic Fluid, from 40 Woodcut Spots (2011) sold for £4,788 (over $6,500).

According to Thornton, the broad nature of the YBA market makes it accessible for new collectors. “These are very well-established British artists’ names, and they work in a huge variety of media, so there are definitely very easy and accessible ways to start a YBA collection through looking at editions, printmaking, screen prints, and photography,” she said.

Follow your heart

Tracey Emin
Detail of Love, 2020
Xavier Hufkens

Whatever the price, Tibbles said the guiding principle of collecting YBA work should be to buy what you love. “Allow yourself to be educated but to go with your heart,” he said. “It’s like friends—nobody can tell you who to be friends with…you just sort of know it.”

Tibbles started collecting in the late 1980s before the term “YBA” was coined, and friends were skeptical of his decision to purchase Hirst’s Bodies in the year it was made to display in his flat. “For seven years, everybody told me it was absolutely ghastly and they hated it,” he said. “It was quite interesting that as it became more valuable, people liked it a lot more.”

Tibbles encouraged new collectors to go to museums to see work that is completely different from what they think they might want to buy to train their eyes. “At the end of the day, good art does give you a particularly uplifting emotion. It’s a strangely solitary but very pleasurable thing to see something done beautifully,” he said. “And it’s an emotion that you learn to trust as you see more and more good stuff.”

Be open to different forms of buying

Sarah Lucas, installation view of VOX POP DORIS, 2018, at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, 2019–20. © Sarah Lucas. Photo by Xing Yu, Yang Li. Courtesy of Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing and Sadie Coles HQ, London.

When it comes to purchasing, Tibbles recommended finding an art dealer or gallery that can help you filter through the work, because the output of the YBAs is so vast and varied.

“If you go through the number of artists who have done good and great works, there’s actually quite a lot of them,” he said. “It makes a massive difference if you’ve got somebody who really knows, trying to direct you.”

Thornton encouraged new collectors to be open to different forms of buying and said that auctions can be a good place to start. “It’s a very different process to walk into a gallery, select what you like, and buy it,” she said. “You have much more control over the process [in a gallery], whereas part of the fun at auction is that it’s really unpredictable.”

Mark Wallinger
The Word in the Desert I, 2000
Hauser & Wirth
Tracey Emin
The Execution, 2018
White Cube

She added that the range of YBA works available, the abundance of contextual information, and the transparency of pricing at auction can be invaluable to new buyers, as well as the guarantee of authenticity.

“It’s not the only way of buying—really, the important thing is to find what it is you like so that when you buy it, you’re going to be happy living with it for a long time,” Thornton said. Though many of the Young British Artists are now indisputably middle-aged, much of their work retains the captivating energy that made them such firebrands in the first place.

Olivia Gavoyannis