This past summer Damien Hirst officially became the world’s most expensive living artist both at auction and in the gallery, bypassing even long-established greats like Jasper Johns. In June, Sotheby’s London sold Hirst’s Lullaby Spring, a 2002 medicine cabinet filled with hand-painted pills, for £9.65 million ($19.3 million), superseding Johns’s auction record for a living artist. But that’s nothing compared with the £50 million ($100 million) price on For the Love of God(2007), Hirst’s diamond-encrusted platinum skull, which London’s White Cube gallery sold in August, reportedly to a consortium that included the artist himself.
Hirst, 42, may well be the world’s richest artist, too. While most of his money comes from the sale of artwork, he continues to find new ways to turn his artistic reputation and notoriety into successful sidelines. He has a company, Other Criteria, that licenses his imagery, creates products, and sells them on the Web. In addition to Hirst’s own prints, editions, books, posters, and T-shirts, the company markets the wares of other artists. And this is just one piece of an umbrella corporation, Science Ltd., that oversees Hirst’s vast studios, 120 employees, and other business interests.
Over the years Hirst’s financial ventures have included a popular London restaurant; backing of musicians and artists including Fat Les, the band that came up with the hit football anthem “Vindaloo” in 1998; a restored inn located in North Devon; a widely shown art collection; and, looking ahead, plans for separate museum and gallery spaces.
Last month at New York’s Fashion Week, Hirst launched a line of clothing that is part of the Warhol Factory X Levi’s label from Levi Strauss & Company, to be sold at select retailers such as Fred Segal, Barneys New York, and American Rag. Playing off the publicity surrounding For the Love of God, some items will feature miniature crystal skulls on black denim. Clearly, Hirst has become more than a famous artist—he has become a global brand.
“It’s quite true,” says the artist’s business manager, Frank Dunphy. “Damien is very aware of his brand potential.” A close friend often identified as a father figure, the 69-year-old Dunphy is credited with turning Hirst into a commercial empire.
He demurs when asked about Hirst’s net worth: “I can’t tell you that, but the figures pretty much speak for themselves.” Britain’s Sunday Times Rich List, published last April, estimated the artist’s worth to be upward of £130 million. However, that was calculated before Hirst’s recent show in London, which reportedly brought in £130 million during its run in addition to the £50 million for the skull in August. Thanks to Dunphy’s acumen, the artist kept 75 percent. Although Hirst remains loyal to his two longtime galleries, White Cube and Gagosian, his market power allows him to show when he wishes, without a formal contract and on his own terms. (White Cube declined to comment on the matter, and Gagosian did not respond to e-mails or phone calls.)
The result is a steady revenue stream. To the total above should be added the income from an apparently insatiable appetite for private sales of new works and from carefully controlled sales of older works that the artist has held onto or bought back in an ongoing attempt to influence the market. Hirst’s fortune will soon surpass £200 million ($400 million), if it hasn’t already. Quite an accomplishment for a boy from working-class Leeds.
Growing up in Northern England, Hirst was close to his mother, Mary Brennan, who now lives with him in Devon. He never knew his father and took the surname of his stepfather, who married his mother when Damien was two years old but left ten years later. As a teenager Hirst was rebellious, and his mother has said she lost control of him. After graduating from school, he hung around Leeds for a few months—at one point talking a scientist friend into letting him draw bodies in a mortuary—before moving to London, where he initially worked in construction. He was rejected by several art schools before gaining entry in 1985 to Goldsmiths College at the University of London, then the nexus of experimental art in the United Kingdom. Just a few years later, thanks in no small part to Hirst, the school would be known as the launching pad for the Young British Artists, or YBAs.
Hirst first captured the art world’s attention while he was still at Goldsmiths, though not for his art. With his characteristic mix of determination and chutzpah, he found a warehouse in London’s Docklands, drummed up funding, and curated the now-legendary “Freeze” exhibition in 1988. Although the show launched the careers of Anya Gallacio, Gary Hume, and Sarah Lucas, among others, Hirst’s own work did not immediately catch on.
“I can’t pretend I saw the relevance of the spot paintings then,” says Sir Norman Rosenthal, exhibition secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts, whom Hirst personally chauffeured to the show early one morning in his beat-up car. “Of course, now I regret not buying them—I think they cost about £300 or £400 at the time. But I was always impressed by his enterprise.” Many shared this reaction, and some writers predicted that Hirst might go on to be a curator or gallerist.
But Hirst, whom Dunphy describes as “extremely motivated,” had other plans. He met Jay Jopling at an art opening in 1991, when the dealer was starting to think about working with young artists but two years before he opened White Cube. The pair drank late into the evening, and Jopling visited Hirst’s council flat in Brixton the following night. There the dealer found extensive drawings and plans of artworks Hirst yearned to make but lacked the means to realize. Jopling, an Eton College and Oxford graduate and son of a former U.K. minister of agriculture, was able to provide help, though the artist continued to pursue other outlets as well.
Just two years out of art school, Hirst found his reputation growing. He grabbed the media’s attention with his 1991 self-organized London show, “In and Out of Love.” The installation featured rooms filled with hundreds of live butterflies, hatching, flying, and dying—and dead specimens attached to canvases. That same year Charles Saatchi bought Hirst’s A Thousand Years (1990)—a maggot- and fly-ridden cow’s head encased in a room-size vitrine. More significant, the collector gave the artist Â£50,000 to make his first shark piece, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), which created a furor when it was shown at Saatchi’s gallery the following year. The shark, which Saatchi sold to American collector Steven A. Cohen in 2004 for $8.3 million, firmly established Hirst’s reputation as a sensationalist dealing with themes of life and death.
Hirst’s other seminal market moments—“Damien loves these benchmarks,” Dunphy says—include the first time his work sold for £1 million, in 2000, when Saatchi bought Hymn (1999), a 20-foot-tall version of a medical school anatomy figure. And then there was the sale of the physical remnants from Pharmacy, the restaurant that Hirst opened in 1998 with Matthew Freud and Groucho Club founder Liam Carson. Showing considerable foresight,
Hirst had retained sole ownership of the contents of the restaurant.
“It was a total art installation,” Dunphy says of the restaurant. “Damien spent almost a year designing and perfecting the details before it opened.” For a while, Pharmacy was the hottest place to be seen in London. Nonetheless, the owners closed it in 2003. When the restaurant was about to be cleared out, Dunphy suggested putting the contents up for sale at Sotheby’s. Hirstmania took over, and the October 2004 auction brought in £11.1 million ($19.8 million). A pair of martini glasses (estimated at £50 to £70) fetched £4,000, and some wood flooring sold for £12,000.
Even before Pharmacy opened in 1998, Hirst’s reputation was set. Treating him more as a celebrity than as an artist, the press wrote of Hirst sitting naked at the piano in the Colony Room Club and bingeing with friends like actor-comedian Keith Allen and Blur bassist Alex James. “These were what I call his rock-and-roll years,” recalls Dunphy.
Today Hirst prefers the company of his wife, Maia Norman—a surfer he met when she was dating Jopling—and their children, Connor, Cassius, and Cyrus, at their house in Devon. “Back then he was having the time of his life,” Dunphy says. “The fact is, he’s always having the time of his life, but now he’s dry and more focused on his work.” Dunphy considers the shift in Hirst’s lifestyle key to his new level of success.
The gains have been impressive even for an artist of Hirst’s stature. In fall 2003, just as Pharmacy was closing, Hirst sold more than £11 million worth of works at his White Cube show “Romance in the Age of Uncertainty.” The prices spurred speculation that his market might be peaking. Then he made one of his boldest business moves: buying back a dozen early works from Saatchi. Many of the reports at the time framed the deal in terms of a personal dispute, offering accounts of strained relations between the artist and his best-known collector. But Hirst’s motivation may have been largely financial—after all, the artist had a reputation for saying outrageous things to and about collectors. In retrospect, the deal seems analogous to a public company’s buying back its stock, both as a signal of confidence to the greater marketplace and as a bet that the prices will go up. That bet certainly seems to have paid off for Hirst. The terms of the Saachi deal were not made public, and Dunphy will not even reveal which works were involved, but there is little doubt that their value has increased dramatically.
Dunphy suggests that some of those works may turn up in the museum the artist is creating to house his art collection. Hirst has become one of the United Kingdom’s biggest collectors of contemporary art. Among his extensive holdings are key works by Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, and fellow YBAs Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin. And he continues to stay on the cutting edge, having recently bought works by graffiti art star Banksy as well as the entire contents of Paul Insect’s summer show at Lazarides gallery filled with paintings with titles like Death to Modernism and skull imagery; the provocative show was valued at about Â£500,000 ($1 million). To create a home for these and other works, Hirst is restoring one of England’s great estates, 300-room Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire.
Hirst’s name often comes up in connection with real estate deals. He has purchased an 87,000-square-foot studio in Gloucestershire, where he already has a 20,000-square-foot space and two airplane hangars he uses as studios. He also owns several studios and an office in London. “The plan is to move all the London studio work to Gloucester,” says Dunphy. But Hirst is not entirely abandoning the capital. Plans are under way for a vast new space on Newport Street in South London. Dunphy describes the Newport Street venture as a commercial space that “will be showing artists.” It seems the artist may be considering a role as a gallerist after all.
Dunphy began working with Hirst in the partying years, when the artist’s taxes were going awry. Originally an accountant specializing in entertainers, he started with a host of circus stars, and his client list eventually grew to include such big names as singer Gene Pitney. These days Dunphy works solely with Hirst, negotiating prices and deals as well as managing his properties, businesses, charity donations, and business relationships.
In addition to the butterfly and spot paintings hanging in his house, Dunphy has a folder of portraits Hirst has drawn of him on the backs of place mats during their frequent lunches at the Wolseley in Piccadilly. A drawing of Dunphy with dollar signs in his eyes was made on the morning before the Pharmacy sale; a recent one shows Hirst’s manager covered in diamonds.
Hirst’s other diamond piece was the talk of London over the summer as it sat at White Cube waiting for a buyer. And there were plenty of intriguing details to discuss. For the Love of God—the title comes from Hirst’s mother’s exclamation when he told her what he was planning to make—is based on an 18th-century skull Hirst found in a thrift shop; London jewelers Bentley & Skinner re-created the skull exactly in platinum before covering it in 8,601 diamonds valued at more than £10 million. Paul Greer called it “the most ambitious piece of British jewelry since the crown jewels.”
The piece was both praised and vilified when it was unveiled. But the work exists at least in part outside the world of critical analysis. It is an icon of the market. Like the mid-19th-century painters who toured their great panoramic vistas, simultaneously making money on admissions and increasing their fame and the price of the works, Hirst plans to send the skull on a traveling exhibition. The details of the deal remained unclear as ARTnews went to press. According to Dunphy, however, the artist held out for a buyer who would make the work available for such a tour and joined the consortium of investors so that he can have some control over the show. “If not for that, we already had several buyers in the running who were ready to pay the full price, no discounts,” he says. “Maybe we should have priced it higher.”
Pernilla Holmes is a London-based curator and writer.