x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The art of making money

Arts news Damien Hirst smashes the record for an auction dedicated to a single artist, selling 218 items for £111m (Dh727m).

The British artist Damien Hirst poses in front of his work <i>The Incredible Journey</i> at Sotheby's art gallery and auction house in London.
The British artist Damien Hirst poses in front of his work The Incredible Journey at Sotheby's art gallery and auction house in London.

The financial markets may be tottering, but the art markets seem resilient, with Damian Hirst breaking the record for an auction by a single artist on the same day the fourth largest investment bank in the United States collapsed. Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, a highly publicised two-day auction at Sotheby's in London, sold 218 items for £111m (Dh727m). Fifty-four new works were sold for £70.55m (Dh466m) during the Monday-evening session. The Golden Calf, a formaldehyde-pickled white bullock with horns of 18-carat gold and a gold disc atop its head, sold for a record-breaking £10.35m (Dh67.8m). The previous record at auction for a single piece by Mr Hirst was Lullaby Spring, a medicine cabinet which sold for £9.65m (Dh63.2m) in 2007. A morning and an afternoon sale on Tuesday brought in a further £41m (Dh268.6m). Mr Hirst surprised the art world earlier this year by announcing Sotheby's would auction 223 of his new works. It was the first large sale of its kind by a major artist. By taking his work straight to auction and bypassing his traditional commercial dealers - Jay Jopling's White Cube gallery in London and Larry Gagosian in New York - Mr Hirst was taking a big gamble. He risked flooding the market with his work, prompting naysayers to speculate that he may have marinated one beast too many. But the potential gains were high: by jilting dealers, Mr Hirst cut out intermediaries who can cream off up to 60 per cent of the sale price. Mr Hirst spent months wooing potential buyers. His public relations machine whizzed and whirred. In the 11 days before the auction more than 21,000 people visited Sotheby's pre-sale exhibition. Variations on Mr Hirst's best-known themes were on display: sharks, bulls and zebras pickled in formaldehyde and paintings made up of skulls and dots. Sales of the exhibition's £50 (Dh328) catalogue totalled more than £60,000 (Dh393,070). With the outcome by no means certain, the scene was set for an art auction as a high-stakes, high-risk spectator sport. On the opening day omens looked grim. Headlines were choked with dire news from the financial markets. In the end the artist's brand proved strong and, significantly, global. The auction house had courted buyers in the new markets, such as China, India, Russia and the Middle East. Although Sotheby's is not releasing details, 35 per cent of the buyers were new to the Contemporary Art department and 18 per cent were new to Sotheby's. Of the bidders new to Sotheby's, 25 per cent came from the new markets. Sotheby's clearly has big plans for the region. It began to develop its role in the art market with the appointment of Roxane Zand as director Sotheby's Middle East and Gulf Region in 2006. As Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby's Europe, explains: "Our relationships with clients from across the Arab world have always been of enormous importance to us, and through enhancing our presence in the Gulf we hope to be in a position to nurture these relationships even further." Just as in the 19th century, the history of art was glazed with sugar, with dynasties endowing museums such as the Tate Gallery in London or the Mauritshuis in the Hague, so the history of art in the 21st century may glisten with oil. Regardless of the location of the buyers, Mr Hirst's global fame certainly contributed to the success of this week's auction. It surpassed the previous record for an auction by a single artist: $32 million from the sale of 88 paintings by Picasso in 1993. That Hirst broke a record set by Picasso is significant. In 2004, Picasso's Garçon à la pipe sold at auction in Sotheby's in New York for $104.1m (Dh382.36m), the most ever paid for a painting at auction. Few artists can claim to rival such a huge and lucrative reputation. Mr Hirst is certainly prolific and he clearly has a depth of audience around the world willing to pay huge sums for his work. Sotheby's share price rose by 1 per cent on Monday when most stocks were tumbling. Perhaps Mr Hirst belongs to the history of publicity rather than of art.