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New and Seasoned Buyers Vie for Works at Hirst Sale

Who were the buyers at Sotheby’s $200.7 million sale of new Damien Hirst artworks here on Sept. 15–16?

LONDON—Who were the buyers at Sotheby’s $200.7 million sale of new Damien Hirst artworks here on Sept. 15–16?

The biggest buyer of the sale in number of lots was Alina Davey, a Russian-speaking member of Sotheby’s private client group, who bought nine lots for £12.9 million ($23.2 million) using the same paddle number. These included Fragments of Paradise, a cabinet with industrial diamonds, bought in bidding against White Cube gallery for £5.2 million ($9.3 million) on an estimate of £1 million/1.5 million, and a similar work, Memories of/Moments with You, also bought against White Cube for £2.6 million ($4.7 million) on an estimate of £800,000/1.2 million.

Moscow gallery owner Gary Tatintsian acquired half a dozen works for £2.7 million ($4.9 million), among them a spot painting on a gold background—Tetrachloroauric Acid—bought for £769,250 ($1.4 million) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000.

A telephone buyer paid £10.3 million ($18.6 million) for the top lot, The Golden Calf, which Sotheby’s said was a record for the artist in pounds sterling. (At Sotheby’s London in June 2007, Hirst’s medicine cabinet Lullaby Spring sold for £9.65 million, which was equivalent to $19 million at the time.) The buyer of The Golden Calf was said by one trade insider to be top collector and Christie’s owner François Pinault, but Pinault’s adviser, Philippe Ségalot, denied this.

The same telephone buyer who acquired The Golden Calf also acquired two other lots, including The Abyss, a huge 93-by-185-by-4-inch cabinet lined with cigarette stubs (estimate: £1.2 million/1.8 million), which sold for £1.8 million ($3.2 million).

The opening evening sale set off at a rattling pace, with White Cube’s Jay Jopling making the first of many bids, acquiring Heaven Can Wait, a butterfly triptych (estimate: £300,000/500,000), for £993,250 ($1.8 million). Jopling went on to bid on several more lots for his clients, successfully obtaining The Triumvirate, three cabinets with anatomical models (estimate: £1.5 million/2 million), for £1.7 million ($3 million); Young Damien, a painting of the early Hirst photograph With Dead Head (estimate: £300,000/500,000), for £1 million ($1.9 million); and Here Today, Gone Tomorrow, a large cabinet of fish and fish skeletons in formaldehyde (estimate: £2.5 million/3.5 million), for £2.95 million ($5.3 million) in bidding against dealer Anthony d’Offay.

London dealer Anne Faggionato also bid actively, acquiring three three-dimensional works for £1.2 million ($2.2 million). Chief among these was Pigs Might Fly, a winged piglet in formaldehyde, bought for £541,250 ($971,381) against an estimate of £500,000/700,000. Spanish dealer Fernando Mignoni bought two works, including Midas Void, an oval butterfly painting on gold for £217,250 ($389,899) on an estimate of £180,000/250,000.

New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe said he acquired four works for “about $1 million,” including Acquarius, a small circular butterfly painting from a series of paintings titled after signs of the zodiac for £34,850 ($62,545), within the estimate of £30,000/40,000.

Haunch of Venison’s Harry Blain bought End of the Line, a large medicine cabinet (and perhaps Hirst’s last, judging from the title) for £1.4 million ($2.5 million) against an estimate of £1.5 million/2 million, as well as the painting Second Series Biopsy: M122/375, M122/374 (estimate: £120,000/150,000) for £157,250 ($282,217).

Private dealer Nicholas Maclean bought the painting Twenty-nine Pills, estimated at £400,000/600,000, for £1.1 million ($1.98 million).

London restaurateur Jimmy Lahoud bought a pair of circular butterfly paintings, Psalm 3: Domine, quid multiplicati? and Psalm 6: Domine, ne in furore, sold together as one lot, for £205,250 ($368,362) against an estimate of £120,000/150,000, as well as the rectangular spin painting Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, How Can You Not Love Today Painting for £325,250 ($583,726) on an estimate of £200,000/300,000.

Zurich dealer Andrea Caratsch grabbed one of the bargains of the sale, acquiring Theology, Philosophy, Medicine, Justice, comprising four small sharks in two tanks of formaldehyde (estimate: £3 million/4 million), soon after it was passed over on the auction block at £2.35 million ($4.2 million).

New York dealer Alberto Mugrabi bid on several lots, but only acquired one, Grave Matters, another cigarette-stub work, for £121,250 ($217,607) against an estimate of £30,000/40,000.

Auction Breaks New Ground

Hirst and Sotheby’s outfaced the negative sentiments of many in the art market by pulling off the groundbreaking auction, the first to feature entirely new works by a single artist. With Hirst’s poor track record in recent auctions, adverse publicity related to unsold works at his gallery White Cube, and the financial markets plunging further on the day of the sale, there was plenty of cause for concern, in spite of the tremendous amount of attention the sale had attracted.

But in the end the Hirst brand, and the skill with which it was marketed, triumphed. “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” as the sale was titled, realized £111.4 million ($200.7 million), with buyer’s premium, against a presale estimate of £68 million/98 million exclusive of premium.

Estimates were also set below retail—by as much as 30 percent, according to dealer Micky Tiroche—to encourage bidding. Critics were sharply divided on whether the work represented a new summit of achievement, with the art market itself as its subject (particularly in The Golden Calf), or simply a capitulation to the gold-plated values of the nouveaux riches that Hirst had targeted.

Hirst, who paid no vendor’s commission, will have netted about £95.7 million ($172 million) after buyer’s premium and charity donations are deducted. Production costs and commission to his manager, Frank Dunphy, will have reduced that amount to about £50 million ($90 million), according to some reports. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that so many works could have been sold in such a short time by either of his main galleries, White Cube or Gagosian.

Altogether, 218 of the 223 lots in the two-day auction were sold, and some of the few unsold lots were snapped up privately before the sale ended.

The offerings consisted of works produced over the past two years which continued Hirst’s familiar line in medical cabinets, spot, spin and butterfly paintings, and “natural history sculptures”—animals in glass tanks of formaldehyde. These works were distinguished by high production values, and some departures from past work (such as metal butterflies, rectangular spin paintings and industrial-diamond cabinets) within those groupings. Everything had been made to fit the walls and floor plan of Sotheby’s, and Hirst’s announcement that some of these lines (namely, the spin and butterfly paintings) would be discontinued added a sense that this would be a last chance to buy.

Hirst’s other dealer, Gagosian, was less active, with gallery director Stefan Ratibor buying just one lot, Can’t Live with You, Can’t Live Without You, a pair of cabinets with tiny fish in formaldehyde (estimate: £1 million/1.5 million), for an under-estimate £881,250 ($1.6 million). The gallery was the underbidder, however, on the top lot of the sale, The Golden Calf. Rumors that White Cube and Gagosian had been offered a cut of the buyer’s premium to support the sale by encouraging their clients to bid were firmly denied both by Sotheby’s and by a representative of Science Ltd., Hirst’s company.

According to Sotheby’s, 35 percent of buyers in the evening sale were new to the contemporary-art department, and 18 percent were new to Sotheby’s. Although the auction house provided no geographic breakdown of the buyers, American participation was believed to have been slight.

The £70.5 million ($127 million) evening sale surpassed its estimate of £43.2 million/62.3 million, with half the lots selling for hammer prices above estimate, six of them by multiples of two or more. The day sale took in an additional £40.9 million ($73.4 million), with just three lots unsold, in what Sotheby’s officials described as its most successful contemporary day sale ever. Again, about half the lots exceeded their estimates at the hammer prices; the other half sold at or below estimates, and thus arguably below retail.

White Cube was active in the day session as well, underbidding on about four lots and buying The Broken Dream, a foal’s head with a single horn in formaldehyde (estimate: £600,000/800,000), for a below-estimate £505,250 ($906,772).

The flashy industrial-diamond cabinets, spot and butterfly paintings on gold or in new configurations, and paintings and sculptures of Hirst’s signature skulls did well throughout the sale. Some of the formaldehyde works failed to take off, such as The Incredible Journey, a zebra estimated at £2 million/3 million, which brought only £1.1 million ($1.98 million).

The more cerebral vitrines, with less immediate visual impact, also struggled to attract attention. A cabinet of gas masks, Claustrophobia/Agoraphobia, estimated at £400,000/600,000, sold for just £241,250 ($432,971), while As the Memories Fade, a steel cage containing barrels of formaldehyde and respirator masks, failed to sell (estimate: £180,000/250,000). Also unsold were Killing Time and Time to Kill, glass vitrines with tables and minimal content which looked like reworkings of much earlier Hirst pieces, both estimated at £400,000/600,000.

But then, most of the sale contents were reworkings of familiar themes (Hirst described them as his “greatest hits”), dressed up in showier, eyecatching fashion. The sale was billed as an unrepeatable opportunity to buy into this brand without the vetting of buyers that happens in galleries, and the tactic paid off. “The market is bigger than we know,” Hirst said after the sale.

Hirst, meanwhile, explained to ARTnewsletter that in discontinuing certain styles of work—such as the butterfly and spin paintings—he will gain “more head space” to develop new ideas.

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