Damien Hirst does, notoriously, pretty well for herself. The 56-year-old is the richest recording artist in England, in part because of the branding power of his recognizable body of work, factory-like studio operation and bad-boy persona (despite his generosity, he still makes a point of robbing the camera as a punk opposing the machine rages).
Hirst came on the scene with the YBAs in the 1990s with his gory conceptual shark sculpture and went on to win the Turner Prize. At the height of his market before the financial crisis of 2007-08, his sculptural provocations fetched eight-figure sums at auction.
While he’s still a household name hauling in the dollars in the primary market, the wild success of his auction peak has since taken a nosedive and his market has yet to recover. Meanwhile, his credibility as an establishment disruptor has diminished significantly given his commercial success, and he has been criticized in recent years for his unimaginative concepts and unfair labor practices.
Nevertheless, he has continued to produce works, some more provocative than others, that respond to his main interests in themes of death, science, religion and money. His latest provocation was a playful experiment with the foam for NFTs: “The Currency” asked every buyer to choose whether to exchange an NFT token for a physical work on paper, or keep the digital edition, after which Hirst would literally burn the accompanying drawing. Most buyers preferred IRL artworkand early secondary market results show higher prices for the properties than the NFTs, indicating that the market is still evaluating at least some of Hirst’s physical works.
But what about the rest of his oeuvre? We went to the Artnet Price Database to find out.
Auction Report: $19.2 million earned at Sotheby’s in June 2007
Hirst’s performance in 2021
Lots sold: 678
Bought in: 142
Resale Percentage: 82.7 percent
Average selling price: $55,898
Average estimate: $44,061
Total sales: $37.9 million
Top total price: $6.9 million
Lowest total price: $95, for a small signed butterfly spider painting from 2009
- Market foam. Hirst’s auction market first began to heat up in the early 2000s, when works quickly sold out in the primary market. Total prizes peaked in 2007 when a 2002 work, Lullaby Spring, a glass case filled with miniature handmade pills, which responded to Hirst’s early iconic works, including his mock paintings and medicine cabinets, sold for $19.2 million at Sotheby’s.
- Self-sabotage. Hirst’s market peaked in 2008. That year, his work swept the auctions, increasing volume by 63.4 percent to rake in total sales of $268.8 million. While it’s normal for more work to come to market after a record, the high volume was due to Hirst’s decision to bring 218 works to auction directly from his studio, a then-radical market gesture that wiped out the galleries. The auction took place at Sotheby’s in September on the same night that Lehman Brothers collapsed and financial markets plummeted, heralding the start of the Great Recession. While the gesture was an excellent marketing feat for the Hirst brand, it also saturated its market, and the following year, when financial stress was felt elsewhere, overall sales fell 92.4 percent.
- Money for breakthrough. After 2008, Hirst’s secondary market retreated in response to oversupply and buyers became more selective. Competition and high prices in the following years centered on Hirst’s seminal pieces from the 1990s and early 2000s, such as his mock paintings, medicine cabinets and early installation works. Opportunities to buy remain in early large-scale complicated installations, as many are put off by the maintenance and storage requirements. That means that even important installations from the 90s can still be found in a relatively affordable price range. Elsewhere, during the day sale, people have been sleeping on a few rare-to-market spot paintings from the 1990s, many of which still bear traces of the artist’s hand in minor imperfections that disappeared after he stepped up his studio operation.
- Market in bloom. In recent years, Hirst has found a winning formula with a newer body of work. Hirst’s popular “cherry blossom” paintings are quickly gaining market appeal, which can bring in anywhere from $750,000 to $3.5 million in the primary market, either through Gagosian, White Cube or his own company Science Ltd, according to the report. New York times. Though produced on a factory line, they’re coveted: One of them broke its estimate to sell for $5.6 million at Sotheby’s New York this spring. Other popular series at the moment include his shiny butterfly paintings and items from his mythical 2017 Venice exhibition, “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable.”
- Horizon lines. Last year was Hirst’s best auction since the crash, with works fetching some $37.9 million. But that comes with a caveat: 820 works were offered, a 28.9 percent jump from the 2008 peak. Overall sales are still 85.9 percent below its peak, and a formaldehyde zebra up for auction. sold for $1.9 million in 2008, it was resold at Sotheby’s in 2021 for $782,000. Nevertheless, there are positive signals for the market: 12,178 users have searched Artnet’s Price Database for Hirst in the past 12 months, and so far in 2022 he is the sixth best performing contemporary artist at auction, with works fetching approximately $28.1 million.
Hirst’s market rebound this year could be partly attributed to the broader economic situation. People tend to flock to brand names in a recession as a surer footing against inflation, and Hirst’s ubiquitous brand certainly won’t hurt him in that regard. That said, the art market tends to lag behind general world events, so it might be too early to say that buyer psychology alone is driving the trend. Another obvious factor is: the increase in the number of works to be auctioned.
Overall, Hirst’s decision in recent years to move away from showcases and spot paintings to large, abstract, colorful compositions such as the cherry blossoms, however, is in keeping with market tastes that have moved from dry conceptual work to expressionist, painterly works on canvas. With the cherry blossom in particular – recognizable decorative works that are easy to house – Hirst seems to have found just the right market alchemy, which explains why his teams are working on the cherry blossom paintings for museum shows, currently on display at National Art Center Tokyo, after an outing at Fondation Cartier in Paris last year.
These are widely produced, but are still highly sought after, and there are strong results for those that have been up for auction so far. It’s too early to say for sure, but if you look at this space, you might see something blooming.
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