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Dead Shark Postmortem: Ramifications and Misinterpretations of the Hirst Auctions

Oliver Barker wielding the Hirst hammer yesterday at Sotheby’s

There are two widely held misconceptions about yesterday’s Hirst auction:

I had predicted in my last post that reporters would misleadingly claim that the auction had exceeded its presale estimate, because they would make the apples-to-oranges comparison between the sale total INCLUDING the buyer’s premium and the total presale estimate, which predicts hammer total, NOT including the premium.

What I hadn’t foreseen is that Sotheby’s itself, in its post-sale report, would promote the myth that the auction outstripped its expectations. Its press office yesterday asserted that the auction fetched a total “exceeding the high estimate.” It’s enough that the sale was astoundingly successful. Do we really need to exaggerate?

The hammer total was, in fact, just short of the high end of the presale estimate range, whether calculated in British pounds or U.S. dollars: £61.22 million (est. £43.2-62.3 million); or $110.43 million (est. $77.93-112.5 million).

The other misconception, found in several news accounts, is that the bypassing of dealers through direct-to-auction sales by artists is unprecedented. As Barbara Pollack reports in her comprehensive look at The Chinese Art Explosion in the current issue of ARTnews:

These auction houses [in China] run by their own rules, generating what sometimes seems like a “wild, wild East” atmosphere. It is, for example, fairly common for a house to get consignments
directly from artists, who then use the sales to establish prices for
their works on the primary market.

And now artists’ consignments may become more common in the West as well, albeit for different reasons—the desire of artists to broaden the availability of their work to wider audiences and their wish to keep more of the money for themselves, rather than pay dealers’ commissions that can amount to half the sale price.

Not all artists can pull off this gambit, especially not on the grand scale that Hirst managed to achieve. But the door has been opened. Will dealers start pushing back, by inserting restrictive clauses in contracts with artists, to enforce their right to control the primary market of the artists whom they represent?

an ArtsJournal blog