Beautiful Inside My Head Forever

‘The fine artist came to seem a near-miraculous creator of value, transmuting relatively inexpensive materials into fabulously expensive commodities.’

Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick’s comment on the development of today’s art market-place, in the introduction to their book,  Art Works: Money (Thames and Hudson, 2004), refers to the changing social and economic perception of the artist in the then developed world during the 17th and 18th Centuries.

It is also an appropriate starting point for considering Damien Hirst’s mould-breaking decision to spend 18 months making numerous new works specifically for sale at auction by Sotheby’s in London last September, when some 218 of the 223 lots were sold at one evening and two daytime sessions (some of those unsold were bought privately). The sales attracted a record number of preview visitors to an auction: 39% of the buyers made their first contemporary art purchases, 24% of whom were new clients for Sotheby’s. Total sales were £111.4m. ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’ was the brand name Hirst gave to the whole project.

The mould this project has broken is complex and many-faceted. Artists do not normally consign new works for sale at public auction, usually preferring to control their first/primary sales by consigning or selling them for agreed prices to any dealers they may have, and/or selling them directly to collectors. Dealers in such consigned works, when negotiating first/primary sales, customarily pitch prices at a level below prices already achieved by any of their artists’ works at public auction: their intention is to encourage collectors to buy from dealers, rather than at public auction, and at the same time demonstrate to buyers that works can and do appreciate in market value when eventually resold at public auction. Hirst decided to reverse this approach, telling the Sunday Times before the sales, ‘The first time you sell something is when it should cost the most. I’ve definitely had the goal to make the primary market more expensive.’ He appears to have succeeded, and on a mammoth scale: it has been widely reported that the prices achieved by his Sotheby’s sales were higher than those currently asked by Hirst’s dealers. In other words, Hirst appears to have bypassed his dealers, and bettered their sales prices for his works, by dealing directly with Sotheby’s. Is this a permanent future business model, or a one-off project, and what are its implications for other artists and dealers?

It is axiomatic that the number of artists hankering after gallery representation far exceeds the number of available and willing dealers, that supply therefore exceeds demand, and that most dealers are usually in a stronger bargaining position than most artists when negotiating a gallery representation deal. Such deals are likely to include agreement that the gallery will be the exclusive dealer in the artist’s works, either in the country/state where the dealer chiefly operates or, in the case of international/global dealerships, throughout a continent or possibly worldwide. Hirst’s contractual bargaining power has inevitably increased commensurate with the steep rise in prices of his works, and in his international media profile: at least two prestigious contemporary art galleries appear to have been representing him in recent times, White Cube in London and Gagosian Gallery in the US, with Haunch of Venison (London, Zürich, Berlin, New York) also dealing in his works. It is not known whether Hirst ended his gallery representation deals before his Sotheby’s project, or has since done so. There has been much speculation in the art business world, and in the media generally, about whether Hirst unilaterally bypassed his dealers – thereby saving himself the cost of paying them perhaps 50% commission on their sales of his works, compared with a much lower – possibly even zero – commission to Sotheby’s.

Another unique and intriguing facet of the project is that the initial idea for the public auction of new Hirst works came from Sotheby’s itself. The October 2008 issue of The Art Newspaper reports that ‘Oliver Barker, one of the two [Sotheby’s] specialists who had taken the initial proposition to Hirst and [his business manager Frank] Dunphy for their approval, emerged as a commanding voice on the rostrum and should be given responsibility for forthcoming evening sales at New Bond Street’. Having agreed the idea, Hirst executed and consigned the new works, then energetically contributed to a highly effective sales publicity and marketing campaign. He gave numerous media interviews and photo-opportunities, and appeared on the cover of the European edition of TIME magazine the week before the auctions.

Among the many insights Hirst gave to the media before the auctions was the disclosure of self-doubt about his prolific work rate and output: ‘I was in my studio recently looking at all the work in there and I thought, this is fucking insane. Who is this guy? Can’t you give it a rest: you don’t need to make such stuff.’ He went on to say that he had decided to end production of his numerous spin paintings and butterfly works – undoubtedly helping to lift the bids for the new versions of such works at the imminent auctions. For example: Zodiac, 2008, a set of a dozen butterfly paintings estimated at £250,000 to £350,000, fetched £493,250; and Tetrachloroauric Acid, 2008, a spot painting estimated at £400,000 to £600,000, fetched £769,250.
Although we now know how enormously successful the project turned out to be, this was an extremely risky business venture, especially for Hirst. In the event, only 4% of the consigned new works failed to sell, but nobody – especially Hirst and Sotheby’s – was in a position to know or make an educated guess whether any of the lots would sell at all, let alone sell well. There was simply no precedent for holding this kind of sale of new studio work. Such was the level of media intrigue and speculation before the auctions that the Art Newspaper was driven to investigate why such an outrageous venture had been mounted. In its September 2008 issue, the newspaper’s front page story, under the headline ‘Revealed: the art Damien Hirst failed to sell’, reported having seen recent White Cube documentation showing the gallery’s holding in stock of around 200 unsold Hirst painting and sculptures ‘worth in excess of £100m’, excluding Hirst’s diamond-encrusted platinum skull, For The Love of God, 2007, which is apparently worth £50m. The stock in question is said to include 34 butterfly paintings, 35 spin paintings, seven spot paintings, and six medicine cabinets. The article speculates that ‘the quantity of art available for sale with Hirst’s London gallery helps explain why the artist has opted to take his latest work straight to auction’. Not necessarily. It may be that White Cube’s unsold stock – and any that might also be held by Gagosian and Haunch of Venison – had not in fact failed to sell. Rather, that a strategic (though risky) business decision had been made to hold onto such unsold stock pending the outcome of Sotheby’s auctions of the new works – in the earnest hope and expectation that the auctions would prove to be financially successful and, thereby, possibly enhance the market value of that unsold stock.

As for Hirst’s own strategic objectives for the project, he told The New York Times the day before the first auction, ‘Even if the sale bombs, I’m opening a new door for artists everywhere’. Hirst’s altruism deserves praise. But only the most commercially successful artists are likely to have the opportunity – let alone be able to afford – to take such monumental business risks.

© Henry Lydiate 2008

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.