Installation view of Gagosian Gallery’s booth at Frieze New York, 2016. Photo by Adam Reich for Artsy.
In September 2008 Damien Hirst made the unprecedented move of bypassing his galleries to sell 244 new works in 223 lots at Sotheby’s in London. The two-part auction, titled “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” made just over $200 million—a hefty figure made all the more astonishing by the fact that the first sale took place the same day that Lehman Brothers collapsed.
The announcement of the auction was met with a mixture of shock and amazement by those in the art trade. Some commentators described it as “daredevil” and “brilliant.” Hirst’s dealer, Larry Gagosian, said it was “bad business,” according to The Economist. Sure enough—but perhaps unsurprisingly given the size of the Sotheby’s sale—Hirst’s annual auction sales the following year shrunk by 93%: from some $270 million in 2008 to $19 million in 2009.
Prices for works by the YBA also crashed after September 2008. The average price paid at auction for a work by Hirst in 2008 was $831,000. By September 2010 that figure had dropped to $136,000, according to analysis conducted by artnet at the time.
Almost a decade later, however, Hirst’s market appears to be making a comeback. In an article in the Wall Street Journal in September 2015, Kelly Crow suggested that buzz related to the opening of his $38 million Newport Street Gallery in south London that October could spill over into sales of Hirst’s own art. Julian Treger, the chief executive of Anglo Pacific Group who collects spin and spot paintings, as well as butterfly works, agrees that the gallery has given Hirst’s market a helping hand.
“It’s a wonderful philanthropic venture, great for London, and it positions him as a smart and thoughtful collector with a good eye,” Treger says, noting that it is easy to acquire works on the primary market from the artist. “I think the action has been occurring outside the auction houses,” he adds.
Around a third of pieces by Hirst offered at auctions since 2009 have failed to sell, a figure that has remained consistent since the opening of Newport Street. But some recent auction results support a renewed interest in Hirst’s art. Two works—one, Salvation (2003), covered in butterflies, the other, Damnation (2004), covered in flies—both more than doubled their low pre-sale estimates at Christie’s London last October to sell for £665,000 and £485,000, respectively. The canvases were bought by the the Los Angeles dealer and artist agent Stefan Simchowitz, who says Hirst’s market is now “stabilizing and regaining its strength.” Another butterfly work sold the following evening at Sotheby’s for £629,000 against an estimate of £350,000–£450,000.
“Damien’s market has found its bottom as people have had the opportunity to collect him at more affordable prices, as it should be,” Simchowitz says. “He is a great artist and like all those who are great that stumble, he will rise.”
Treger pinpoints three reasons for Hirst’s recent resurgence. Firstly, the artist rejoined Gagosian’s stable in April of last year after around a three-year hiatus; secondly, with the demise of flipping, “collectors are reassessing his position in the art world and history”; and thirdly, there is “mounting excitement” about Hirst’s forthcoming shows at the Pinault Collection, to coincide with the Venice Biennale.
Hirst will be the first artist in the museum’s history to take over both of its Venice locations: the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. (Their shows routinely prove to be highlights of the Biennale’s opening week—and highly influential on the market.) The project has been 10 years in the making, according to a spokeswoman for the collection, and “highlights the longstanding relationship” shared by Hirst and the French billionaire art collector and luxury goods magnate François Pinault.
Hirst’s work has previously been exhibited at the Palazzo Grassi, in the venue’s 2006 inaugural exhibition “Where Are We Going?,” as well as in the group show “A Post-Pop selection” in 2007. “The benefit to his profile and the amazing body of work can only benefit his market,” Treger says of the Venice exhibitions, both opening on April 9th, a month ahead of the Biennale itself.
Lebanese retail magnate Tony Salamé, who owns two major pieces by Hirst, says the market “took time to digest” not only the 2008 Sotheby’s sale, but also Gagosian’s 2012 exhibition of 300 spot paintings across 11 galleries around the world. The show accounted for almost one third of the more than 1,000 such works in existence, dating from 1986 to 2011. “They flooded the market a bit; there were a lot of works available all over the place. As a collector, sometimes you want to fight for a painting,” he says. “Ultimately, however, and despite uncertainty in the market in general, people still think Damien is a great artist.”