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“Beautiful Inside My Wallet”: London Sunday Times, WSJ Have First and Last Words on Hirst Sales

HirstAuc.jpg
The scene at Sotheby’s, London

No matter what the NY Times and Bloomberg are telling you today, Damien Hirst‘s self-titled $200.75-million two-day auction, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” did NOT achieve results that exceeded its presale estimate (notwithstanding what Sotheby’s asserted in its postsale press release, dutifully echoed by many scribes). I’ve previously explained the results for Monday’s evening sale, which fell within estimate but were reported otherwise.

The day sales at Sotheby’s, London, which evinced hardly any signs of Hirst fatigue, achieved a total hammer price of £34.39 million, slightly BELOW the high end of its presale estimate—£25.21-36.26 million. To draw valid conclusions, presale estimates MUST be compared with hammer prices (as opposed to final prices that included the buyer’s premium), because presale estimates do not include buyer’s premiums.

Now that I’ve once again hammered home that point (to no avail, no doubt), let me concede my own Hirst fatigue by referring you to what is, by far, the most revelatory, detailed and insightful post-“Beautiful” report that I’ve come across: Colin Gleadell‘s Damien Hirst Skips the Middleman in today’s Wall Street Journal. (I’m not sure where he got the “287 lots,” though. It was 223. And the amount that Hirst pocketed may have been further reduced by a commission to his manager, as Bloomberg reported.)

According to Gleadell:

Amid all the back-slapping, whistling and cheering (mainly, it has to
be said, from Sotheby’s employees) there was little time to ponder that
estimates had been set about 30% lower than retail according to the
London trader and art-fund manager Micky Tiroche. While half the lots
had sold above those estimates, just as many had not. For those who
were checking against gallery prices, more than a handful of works had
sold at relative bargain levels.

It must also be noted that more than a handful sold for multiples of their presale estimates, which are often set somewhat below what the market is expected to bear, as an enticement to bidders. Conservative estimates mean that the near-high estimate result may be a little less impressive than it seems.

The best (and most rollicking) piece I’ve seen on what it all signifies and why it matters is Waldemar Januszczak‘s Does Damien Hirst’s Auction at Sotheby’s Mean the End of the Gallery?, published more than a week before the sale in the London Sunday Times. He quoted a “noticeably chipper” Hirst saying, “If you don’t like the rules, change the rules.” Januszczak correctly predicted the sale’s success and foretold a troubled future for dealers in the wake of that success:

Hirst is far too canny a diplomat to admit publicly what all this could mean
for the art world, so let me admit it for him. If this auction works, the
dealers are stuffed. There is absolutely nothing to stop any artist anywhere
selling their work direct through the auction houses. Bang goes the dealer’s
50%.

It was Sotheby’s who approached him about the sale, not the other way round.
In fact, it is always on the phone asking for unsold pieces to be put up for
auction. His answer has always been yes—if it takes new work. But that has
been the sticking point. Because of the unwritten arrangement with the
dealers, Sotheby’s has never been prepared to sell new pieces by him. Until
now.

CultureGrrl readers are generally not a very interactive bunch, but I’d be delighted to publish some BlogBacks from dealers about what this watershed auction means for the future of their business in general and of gallery-artist relations in particular. Succinct arguments for the continued importance of the gallery’s role and how that role may have to evolve in the 21st century will be cheerfully accepted.

Just click the “Contact me” link in the middle column.

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