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Saatchi Offered $12 Million to Let Hirst’s Shark Swim Away

Charles Saatchi, who bought Damien Hirst’s 14-foot tiger shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde for £50,000 some 14 years ago, has been offered £6.25 million (about $11.9 million) for the work. The deal is likely to be clinched “in the next few weeks,” a spokesman for Saatchi said in late December.

LONDON—Charles Saatchi, who bought Damien Hirst’s 14-foot tiger shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde for £50,000 some 14 years ago, has been offered £6.25 million (about $11.9 million) for the work. The deal is likely to be clinched “in the next few weeks,” a spokesman for Saatchi said in late December.

With the sale, Saatchi, who is the country’s biggest collector of contemporary art, will relinquish the most iconic work by a British artist in the late 20th century and the single most valuable asset in his collection.

The destination of the shark is not known, but a spokesman for Saatchi confirmed that the offer had come from a client of American art dealer Larry Gagosian, who is Hirst’s agent in New York. (Gagosian did not return a call seeking comment on the matter.) The work, therefore, is unlikely to stay in the United Kingdom. Many had hoped it would go to London’s Tate Modern, including curator Sir Nicholas Serota.

Saatchi commissioned the animal sculpture, called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, in 1991. In creating the piece, Hirst used a shark bought in Australia for £6,000 (about $10,000).

When the work was first shown, at the Saatchi Gallery in St. John’s Wood in 1992, Hirst immediately became a media sensation.

The exhibition, called “Young British Artists,” also provided the media with a convenient label, the YBAs, with which to refer to what was perceived as a new movement in British art—brash, rude, witty and irreverent. The sale marks the end of one of the most fruitful relationships between artist and patron in modern times.

In late 2003 Saatchi sold 12 early works by Hirst back to the artist for a reported £7.8 million ($15 million). The sale included a sliced pig in formaldehyde, This Little Piggy Went to Market, 1996, valued at approximately £1 million, or $1.7 million (see ANL,12/9/03).

More recently he is thought to have sold one of his favorite works by Hirst, a sheep in formaldehyde called Away From the Flock, for £2.1 million (about $3.7 million).

The extraordinary price for the tiger shark, however, is far above that fetched for the work of any living artist at auction, including such market favorites as Maurizio Cattelan and Jeff Koons.

The profit Saatchi now is realizing from his investments will go toward bankrolling his latest interest, which is the return of oil painting—considered dead until recently—to fashion in the art world.

Some of the artists he will feature in his next exhibition have not come cheaply because, uncharacteristically, Saatchi missed out on them early in their careers.

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