As the credit crunch veered out of control last month, taking out pedestrians on Wall Street and Main Street and knocking over banks like tenpins, the contemporary art market was ticking along handsomely. In a two-day sale in mid-September, Sotheby’s of London auctioned off 223 works by the former bad boy of British art, Damien Hirst. When the gavel finally fell on the last lot, Hirst was $200 million to the good, a record haul for an auction devoted to a single artist.
Not all in the art world were impressed. Particularly unimpressed was the great critic Robert Hughes, who wrote a magnificently sour piece for the Guardian in which he declared that the auction’s only remarkable aspect was that it revealed the yawning chasm between the prices for Hirst’s work and his actual talent. He called Hirst a “pirate” whose only skill is his ability to bluff and flatter the dumb, ignorant, and rich, and blamed him for almost single-handedly creating the cult of artist-as-celebrity, and feeding the “irrational faith in a continuous rise in prices.”
There is no question Damien Hirst is a genius at both self-promotion and self-enrichment. He’s been riding a bull market in contemporary art for over a decade now. Earlier this year the Times of London pegged his net worth at US$364 million—and that was before his landmark auction at Sotheby’s.
Hughes is also right about the parallels between the world of high art and high finance. Both appear to be bubble-driven markets, sustaining absurdly inflated prices based on the expectation that prices will endlessly spiral upward. Over the past decade, the Mei Moses All Art index (a sort of TSX for art investments) has outperformed bonds and bills, and in the first half of this year it gained a solid 7.4 per cent even as the S&P 500 was enduring double-digit declines.
But even this spirited bull appears to be flagging. The art market typically lags about six months to a year behind the stock market, and there are signs of a softening in prices for contemporary art. Just this week, an unfinished portrait of the painter Francis Bacon by his friend Lucian Freud sold for $11.1 million. Preposterous money by any earthly standard, but well short of the $14.3 million it was expected to fetch.
As a businessman, Damien Hirst has impeccable instincts, given the auction’s timing. What about his art? His works include the spot paintings, photorealist drawings of pharmaceuticals, and those notorious installations involving dead and dismembered animals. His most famous installation is a 14-foot stuffed and pickled tiger shark, bought for $12 million in 2005 by a hedge fund billionaire from Connecticut.
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