Damien Hirst had a history with Sotheby’s. In 2003, a pill-themed London restaurant called Pharmacy—a clubby spot that Hirst invested in, filled with his medicine cabinet works and butterfly paintings, and had a hand in designing—went belly-up. The restaurant’s current owner was planning on dumping all the ephemera—floorboards, lighting fixtures, cutlery, matchbooks—that had been, at least to some extent, designed by Hirst in the pharmaceutical theme. At the last minute, Hirst’s accountant and manager Frank Dunphy ran over to the restaurant and bought everything for £50,000. If they could sell the Hirst artworks that hung in Pharmacy, perhaps he could sell the Hirst-designed matchbooks and martini glasses, too.
Sotheby’s Oliver Barker, who at the time was a senior director in the contemporary department, suggested a very unusual kind of auction, which came to him as a vision when passing the shuttered Pharmacy space on the bus to work with his wife.
“I just had a brain flash: That could be an incredible auction,” Barker, who is now co-chairman of Sotheby’s European operations, told Artsy this week. “He could have gone to White Cube or Gagosian to sell butterfly paintings from the Pharmacy restaurant, but the only way to attract the highest value for all the fixtures—the costumes and the glassware and the furniture and the flooring—was really through auction.”
Dunphy was able to convince Hirst to go along with demented gambit, and when the sale was announced in July 2004, the British rags had a field day making fun of the ambitious prices listed for bizarre tableware and decor. “Anyone with a heartfelt yearning for a stool in the shape of an aspirin need not go away empty-handed: a set of six could be yours for a mere £700,” The Guardian wrote at the time. But then something wild happened—when the bidding opened in October 2004, everything sold, and for prices remarkably above the estimates. When Barker opened bidding on the first lot, a pair of martini glasses estimated to sell for £50 to £70, the paddles exploded, and bidding pushed the price to £4,800, nearly 100 times the low estimate. A pair of salt and pepper shakers, estimated to sell for an already pricy £40 if you considered how easy it would have been to steal them after dinner were you so inclined—well, they sold for £1,920. In total it made £11.13 million ($20.06 million), more than double the high estimate.
Hirst, who didn’t bother to show up, told Dunphy, “Suddenly my restaurant venture seems to be a success.”
When Barker noted it was the first and only time a living artist had consigned all of the work in a single auction, it gave Hirst and his business manager an idea.