Damien Hirst: Beautiful Inside My Bank Account Forever...

Damien Hirst is now $172 million richer, Sotheby's approximately $23 million better off. Not bad for a two-day sale. But the success of their joint venture seemed, at times, to hang by a thread; and even in the face of apparent triumph, some are already questioning the basis on which it was achieved.

It's certainly true that those who predicted poor or even disastrous results for 'Beautiful Inside My Head Forever' had reasonable grounds for doing so. Twenty-five per cent of lots by Hirst remained unsold in previous sales for 2008, while reports of stockpiled work in galleries only added to the unease.

Even the most optimistic had to concede that the sale's timing was about as inauspicious as it could possibly get. Coinciding with tumultuous upheaval in financial markets, Sotheby's own stock fell dramatically prior to the auction due to investor jitters regarding its outcome.

Most ominously of all, the banking behemoth Lehmann Brothers collapsed entirely on the day of the evening sale. Even Hirst himself, reportedly playing pool while the auction took place, must have wondered, briefly, if his game was finally up.

Yet, as everyone knows, the apparently miraculous occurred. After a briefly tense start, the opening lot far exceeded its top estimate to become the first in a string of multi-million-dollar sales. The artist's own price record was broken. The following day, every item was snapped up.

Putting on the glitz

While no one can deny the success of Hirst's most audacious move to date, it's also true that little was left to chance in one of the most carefully managed, exhaustively marketed art events ever held.

Crucially, too, the work itself was almost unanimously considered the best in quite some time, although clearly designed to cater to buyers requiring bling for their buck.

Custom-built to adorn Sotheby's viewing galleries, the inevitable spots, spins, and vitrines received a small semblance of freshness through slight but noteable stylistic variation.

The show-stopping opulence of principal work 'The Golden Calf' set the tone for a collection designed to dazzle through an abundance of gold-plated vitrines, sprinklings of manufactured diamonds and general air of jewel-box luxury.

More interesting, however, were the fusions of classic motifs - butterflies and spots on sheets of glistening metal, single butterflies adorning giant spots, spin paintings revealing trademark skulls.

While far from ground-breaking, sceptics expecting a lacklustre collection were forced to reconsider. As leading gallerist Kenny Schachter commented: "I want to be critical, but I'm always seduced".

But in case potential clients were not seduced enough, the marketing might of Sotheby's and Hirst spent months trying to persuade them otherwise.

Intense media coverage of the event was guaranteed, not least because of the implications for Hirst's sidelined galleries, Gagosian and White Cube.

Yet even before the works were revealed to the public, selected pieces had been shipped abroad for appraisal by some of the world's wealthiest gallerists and collectors. In the weeks leading up to the auction, Sotheby's contacted every potential buyer on their books.

Hirst himself added further enticement with a widely quoted hint that this appearance of emblematic works - the butterflies, spots and even formaldehyde animals - was 'likely' to be their last.

It was even suggested that the artist's shunned galleries were offered a percentage of proceeds to support the sale - probably unnecessary given their vested interest in its success, and in any case a rumour that was hotly denied.

Priced to sell

But another important factor in the auction's ultimate success was price - which, according to several major buyers, had been estimated by Sotheby's at around 30% lower than 'standard' market prices .

Post-auction focus has inevitably lingered on sales that doubled or even tripled their estimates, yet at least half the lots sold for well below their upper guide and even, in several cases, substantially below lowest estimates.

In other words, compared with current prices at, for example, White Cube ($6 million for an uninspired take on the periodic table; $4million for a hyper-realist canvas) many of the purchases start to look like relative bargains. What's more, despite appearances to the contrary, prices for Hirst have, indeed, generally fallen.

And who bought?

Despite Hirst's avowed intention to 'democratise the art market', the highest bidders caused few surprises.

Francois Pinault, a keen Hirst collector, paid $27 million for three lots including star attraction 'The Golden Calf'.

Jay Jopling of White Cube spent a total of £6.7 million, a very public display of 'support' for its renegade artist, although Gagosian was notably less enthusiastic, bidding sporadically and acquiring just one piece.

The largest number of lots - nine in total - went to Sotheby's Russian-speaking private client services rep, who spent £12.9 million, presumably for Russian clients.

The immediate headlines generated by such sales played no small part in the following day's success. Some even claimed that, in the light of extreme stock market woes, many made last-minute decisions to re-invest funds in art, seemingly a startlingly resilient commodity. For the day sale at least, a high percentage of buyers were first-timers who had never set foot in a Sotheby's salesroom before.

Auction analysis

Yet the tightly controlled circumstances of the auction led some to question the seemingly impervious market for both Hirst and contemporary art in general.

Todd Levin, director of the Levin Art Group in New York, underlined the "... unusual situation" which allowed both parties to "...orchestrate exactly how many works, of what kinds, and in what price ranges the market could bear.... There is simply no way that Sotheby's would get themselves involved in such a massively epic opportunity for failure without calculating for every last possibility."

All of which is true enough, but ignores the fact that no amount of calculation can actually force anyone to bid.

Others predicted that the 'unusual situation' established by Hirst could well become far more commonplace - if the art market continued to hold up.

Japanese art giant Takashi Murakami expressed interest in a similar sale, and other major players may well one day decide to circumvent hefty gallery commission via the clearly efficient direct-to-auction route.

It's a possibility that certainly had dealers worried, although their largely undiscussed role in 'safeguarding' artists' markets via controlled sales will become particularly effective now that auctions themselves seem to have succumbed, finally, to global financial woes.

The Phactory

But as for Hirst himself, the success of the sale again raised the question: will market fatigue for his art ever set in?

While 'Beautiful Inside My head Forever' seemed to demonstrate that his brand is as popular as ever with buyers, many now see the sale as the apogee of an astonishing, 15-year rise in contemporary art's fortunes and, indeed, Hirst's.

This run of luck turned considerably during London's 2008 October sales, with Hirst one of many victims of falling prices.

What's more, his scaled-up adoption of Warholian mass-production is not just controversial, it's a tactic that will start to wear thin in an ailing, exclusivity focused art market. Warhol's engagement with such techniques was a logical development of his investigation of marketing and brand: similar arguments can hardly be used for Hirst.

In fact, it's difficult to see his factory-style production as anything other than a money-making exercise - something that the usually forthright artist has never cared to admit, although it's clear that big bucks extravagance has left its mark on recent work, including that offered at Sotheby's.

As such, it seems highly unlikely that Hirst will abandon lucrative set-pieces despite recent hints to the contrary. But the point at which variations on long-running themes will tire buyers is anyone's guess, and pumped-up production will simply have to diminish if he's going to retain anything like his current value.

There's no escaping the fact that over-supply will suppress secondary market prices for most pieces. Several works at auction prior to the Sotheby's sale struggled to recoup their enormous original cost, and subsequent sales have hardly fared better.

Indeed, it's probably true to say that re-sale values for most pieces acquired at 'Beautiful Inside My Head Forever' have already dropped substantially. By flooding his market at the worst possible moment, the auction may mark the zenith of Hirst's saleability for some time to come.

On a more optimistic note, the artist's total production is still well below someone like Warhol himself. And work by the Pop maestro considered overtly commercial or average in his lifetime - including much from the late '70s and early '80s - is now fetching high prices due to the scarcity of anything better.

With Hirst certain to remain a seminal figure in the history of art, the lasting significance even of stereotypical works looks future-proof, given time.

If substantial financial gains are sought, however, we're probably talking very long-term investment for all but major pieces.

As for the claim that Hirst has failed to progress his art, the breathtaking innovation of which he was once capable certainly seems a thing of the past. Yet no one could argue with real justification that there haven't been definite stylistic developments even in recent years, which should, one day, be seen as important and covetable variants.

Hirst's grand themes have always been life and death, and to a lesser extent, religion, intoxication and chance. Whether consciously or not, his work now speaks of lucre: love of money is the artist's new religion, and this unlooked for irony will steadily make itself more obvious. Hirst's account of contemporary themes and values is becoming far more complete than perhaps he realises.

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