ESSAY: How to Say Hirst Was First

Who's on first?

Heraclitus was right. When the waters are everflowing, you can never step into the same river twice.

It is therefore, always safe to claim that some work of art, some event, some person, is a “first” — nothing will be the same after so and so, after thus and such, after this.

The controversial Damien Hirst sale at Sotheby’s in 2008 was a first: the contemporary art market would never be the same afterward.

Go ahead and say that, Google it: you won’t lack for support. The press was, after all, in a frenzy, mounting stories about the show, Beautiful in My Mind Forever, and the subsequent two day sale, onto the background blitz of financial failures and the Lehman Brothers collapse.

But what kind of “first” was it?

In the 90’s, as the first art bubble burst, the art world, feeling at first unscathed, went on with it’s usual business — and in the the usual way, as artists made art and dealers placed it carefully in the best homes for thousands of dollars and took their split, and when someone died or a couple got divorced, then the art and it’s lofty well-crafted provenance went to the auction house and the gavel went down on millions.

Artists were slow to catch on. It was late in the decade before a few of them began to employ agents, financial and career advisors who, once in a while, broke the unspoken rules and took fresh work to auction. It remained an unusual practice, but, still: it was being done by big names like Jeff Koons, for instance, who went to auction with a clear market strategy in mind to raise the value of new works and to avoid legal obligations to dealers.

David Hammons Untitled
David Hammons 'Untitled'

On May 14, 2001, David Hammons “Untitled” consigned by the artist, directly from his New York studio to Phillips de Pury, sold for $409,500, an estimated three times what it would have attained in the primary market. At the time, dealers could take as much as 60% of the sales price at their galleries. Mr. Hammons took secondary market money without the primary market split. How was this not a signal to other artists that they could cut out the middle man with great success? When the gavel touched down on this sale, did it mark a first?

Normally, in the old world, auction houses wouldn’t touch art that was less than five years old. The primary market belonged to dealers and the secondary market, to the auction houses. In an environment where competition was stiff and boundaries, so easily blurred, this had remained, for the most part, a clear and rather comfortable demarkation.

Its erosion was seen as an uncomfortable situation.

Roles had been shifting subtly throughout the decade: the auctions houses had begun to court new talent in China and India for primary market consignments. More and more they were approaching established artists with requests for pieces to bolster upcoming sales.

Forbes magazine puts a milestone down plunk at the end of the nineties:

“One event, above all others, sealed the auction houses’ encroachment on the dealers’ turf: the disposal of 130 lots of ’90s art offered by Charles Saatchi through Christie’s London on Dec. 8, 1998. The 97 artists involved in this consignment included Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and several other names with a recently proven track record in auction, but the majority of the participants were scarcely known outside the collector’s own exhibition program, and there was a sense of betrayal in the market as dealers perceived his plan to be disruptive, irresponsible and potentially damaging to their own business.”

So what is it that brought the entire art world to attention in 2008, when Damien Hirst launched Beautiful in My Mind Forever at Sotheby’s, followed by a 2 day sale? After all, bypassing the galleries had been done already.

Roger Bevan, writing for The Art Newspaper in August, just before the sale, had this to say:

“…Hirst has crossed the market’s Rubicon with a gambit which opens a new front for an admittedly very special situation: an artist with brand name recognition and a factory enterprise capable of producing a completely new series of seasonal variations to order. At a stroke, the judicious management of an artist’s career by an agent who identifies which favoured collectors will be permitted to acquire material in conditions of secrecy gives way to the triumph of the highest bidder on the public stage. Now that Damien has demolished the moral barrier of using auctions for distribution and profit, other artists will follow suit.”

So there you have it, four milestones in one event.

This was the first time:
1) A single artist’s show filled an auction house with original works.
2) An artist had consigned directly such a large amount of new work.
3) An artist had created work specifically for the auction house, and for it’s particular space.
4) An auction house had taken on the role of dealer, selling an entire collection. of new work directly (one piece to the artist’s usual dealer, in fact).

Too many lines were being crossed for comfort.

And that led to another turning point: Despite the previous successes of artists before him who had sold new work at auction, Hirst’s huge show, filling the entire house, was seen as a gamble: he could fall flat on his face, in public, and that, at a time when, rumor had it, loads of unsold Hirst creations were piling up in the storerooms of his usual dealers, and a tangle of gossip was surfacing around the L50 million platinum skull thought to have been secretly purchased by a consortium of investors which included the artist’s dealer, Jay Jopling of White Cube, the artist’s business manager, Frank Donphy, and artist himself. This, and a general feeling of ill-will marred most of the media coverage for Beautiful in My Mind Forever covering it in a shadow of doom.

So this was the first time an artist had boldly placed his full reputation on the line at a single public sale, and the bald audacity of such a move caused the art world, and, most notably, the press to speculate, and even to root, against him.

The New York Sun quoted Asher Edelman, a New York art dealer before the Monday evening sale, “It’s very simple: the Damien Hirst will fail,” said Asher. “The view of Monday night is very skeptical.”

But while stories written during the time period before the sale hint at an impending comeuppance, those stories written subsequent to the sale are strangely benighted in their eagerness to embrace a full on victory. A study of the press surrounding the sale, shows a clearly bi-polar response, moving from a who-the-hell-does-he-think-he-is attitude to one of breathless celebration. Most news stories declared the sale a victory of historic proportion. Some even exaggerated in this regard, declaring firsts willy-nilly, forgetting Mr. Hammons and the many big name artists who had consigned new work in the past, declaring Hirst to be a groundbreaker.

The New York Times attributed still yet another milestone to Hirst:

“By the sale’s end, on Tuesday afternoon, the entire auction brought a total of $200.7 million, more than the auction house’s high estimate of $177.6 million. Sotheby’s said the total broke the record for a single-artist auction, set in 1993 when a Picasso sale with 88 works brought $20 million.”

Blithely ignoring the obvious questions that are begged in those statistics — for instance, that many of the lots sold for prices that were actually under the price they would have fetched in a gallery, or that the sheer volume of items moved was what actually made the total amount so vast —The Times story seemed caught up in a spirit of history-making. And so were many others.

Said Hirst’s business manager, Frank Donphy, “I woke up this morning in the teeth of the gale of recession, but we came out as confident as ever.”

The Wall Street Journal quoted New York dealer Alberto Mugrabi, who suggested that the next day’s headlines should read “Hirst Up. Lehman Brothers Down.”

Though the press changed its mind, Hirst never waivered, taking every opportunity to announce his position that it was only right and proper for an artist to slide works directly from the studio to the auction house. Making history is not easy, and not for the faint of heart. Damien Hirst’s biggest first was this: he addressed a topic most artist wouldn’t touch: money.

“The first time you sell something is when it should cost the most,” he says. “I’ve definitely had the goal to make the primary market more expensive.” Using a metaphor to clarify, Hirst went on:

“Why, in the world of shoes, do you pay more for a new pair from Prada, while in the world of art, the big money kicks in only when the shoes get to Oxfam?”

There, marks the most notable first, a breakthrough, if you will: an artist, having considered once and for all, that he works for a living, demands an optimal paycheck.

After that, the art market would never be the same.

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