The vicissitudes of the art market have claimed another high profile scalp, according to data collected by Artnet and analysed in a Bloomberg article last week, Damien Hirst prices are static. Walking around Art Basel Miami this week there are many works by the British YBA Artist on offer, but few takers for a multitude of spots, butterflies and pharmaceuticals.
Damien Hirst’s output between 2005 and 2008 – the period of his greatest success – has subsequently resold at an average of thirty per cent less than its original purchase price. Moreover, a third of the almost 1700 Hirst pieces that have gone to auction since 2009 have failed to sell at all. Most recently, in November, his gloss-and-butterfly collage Sanctimony failed to reach its lowest pre-sale estimate at a Sotheby’s auction.
So what has caused this collapse? Is it just market fickleness, or is it indicative of a more permanent shift in how Hirst’s work is perceived?
One explanation looks back over the latter stages of Hirst’s career for an answer. His work hit its market peak between 2005 and 2008. In that time:
his ovine sculpture Away from the Flock sold for £1.8m;
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the shark) went for £6-7m;
his medicine cabinet Lullaby Spring reached £9.65m, setting new a record for a living artist at the time;
and most notoriously of all, his diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God, sold for £50m.
This period culminated in September 2008, when Hirst and his manger Frank Dunphy organised a two-day sale of 223 original artworks at Sotheby’s. This was the first time an artist had sold a complete body of their work, and Hirst added to the event’s theatricality by titling it ‘The Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.’ Financially, it was tremendous success, making a total of £111m.
Hirst’s dealers, however, were worried that the sale might flood the market and damage the value of Hirst’s work. Their concern now seems justified: it is unlikely to be a coincidence that The Beautiful… occurred shortly before the start of the downward trend identified by Artnet. In market terms, there has been an oversupply of Hirst’s work, contributing to a drop in demand and so decline in price.
Oversupply is not the only possible explanation, however. An alternative or perhaps subsidiary reason, preferred by sceptics of the artistic worth of Hirst’s work, is that collectors have finally noticed that the Emperor is showing rather a lot of flesh. The familiar contention is that Hirst’s output, like the majority of YBA creations, lacks substance and longevity and was swept to prominence solely on the back of a short-lived trendiness.
This view was anticipated by the outspoken gallery owner Julian Spalding, who predicted back in March that Hirst’s work would crash in value. Writing in the Independent, Spalding called works by Hirst the “sub-prime of the art world” and advised owners to “sell while you can.”
“The emperor has nothing on,” wrote Spalding. “When the penny drops that these are not art, it’s all going to collapse. Hirst should not be in the Tate. He’s not an artist. What separates Michelangelo from Hirst is that Michelangelo was an artist and Hirst isn’t.”
The Daily Mail has also taken the opportunity provided by Artnet’s data to publish an attack on Hirst. An article on 28 November interpreted the drop as marking the end of “the astonishing story of how Hirst — a salesman with no artistic ability — made more than £300 million from the ‘art’ he has sold.”
So are we seeing the end of an era? Has the market finally seen Hirst for the charlatan he really is? Or is this simply a temporary wobble, caused by the forces of supply and demand, which has nothing to do with the worthiness of Hirst’s work?
Of course, as soon as the Mail starts to pour scorn on a much-criticised artist it feels as if the artist’s rehabilitation might have begun. Moreover, there is a certain irony in the same people who deride the idea that the art market determines an artwork’s value then pointing to market statistics as evidence that a particular artist’s work is worthless.
Perhaps, regardless of which explanation is more accurate, a collapse in the financial value of Hirst’s art is ultimately a positive thing. We can wait for the commercial golddust that has swirled up and obscured his work to settle. Then we can look again and decide, with a clearer vision, how much it actually affects us.
Words Toby Hill Photo © ArtLyst 2012