On Thursday night, after water flooded the center of the Piazza San Marco, and those climbing out of water taxis in evening-wear slipped on plastic booties to protect thousand-dollar shoes, Damien Hirst walked out alone on the dock at the Gritti Palace. The tide was coming up over the wood, and he stared out onto the Grand Canal, the moon full in the sky. Then Damien Hirst declined the offer of a cigarette, and went back into the hotel, where his dealer Jay Jopling was holding court at the bar alongside longtime supporters such as Miuccia Prada.
That was the first time I had seen Hirst in Venice, but he’s been very present—his show, “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” is perhaps more of a talking point than the Biennale itself, as it’s the first show to take place at both of Francois Pinault’s two grand venues, the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, simultaneously. And the general consensus among critics, curators, museum directors, and academics here seems to be that it is all overblown kitsch.
But one should not discount the number of people who genuinely, deeply like the show, from the citizens of Venice who take great pride that it’s here (the owner of a small San Marco pasta joint who helped me get home my first night in town was almost moved to tears talking about how much he loved it) to the people who have followed Hirst forever and see this as a triumph in the same vein as his other greatest hits (Courtney Love is a fan).
And it seems like the collector class really, really loves it. Contrary to what some expected—or what some wanted—these works are selling, and selling quickly, sources told me. There are 189 works in the show, and each is in an edition of three, with two artist’s proofs. A source who has knowledge of the transactions told me “a bunch of them are totally sold out,” meaning buyers have snapped up all three versions of each work that correspond to the show’s hokey shipwreck backstory—the “coral” edition, the “treasure” edition, and the “copy edition.”
Sources told me that between 60 to 70 percent of the works are already sold—there’s a tad bit of ambiguity about the exact number given the sheer number of works on offer, once all the editions are tallied up. The selling period has stretched on for a while now—collectors were shown PDFs and offered the works sight unseen well before the exhibition began, though they had to sign an NDA to keep the mystique of the show intact—and it appears that buying has ramped up since the show opened in mid-April, when collectors could see the work in person.
Among the buyers, I have learned, are the Nahmad family, who have long supported Hirst; the Mugrabi family, who at one point owned 150 works by Hirst and could very well own many more now; and François Pinault, who is spending big to present the show and admitted to The New York Times that he decided to keep a few for himself. When asked if he had purchased any of the pieces, Pinault responded, “Perhaps. Probably. But I am not going to tell you which ones!”
I have also learned that Qiao Zhibing, the Chinese collector who opened the Tank Shanghai last year, has also picked up work from the show.
Montreal-based collector Francois Odermatt said he was offered one of the coral-covered sculptures—an image of it was sent to him earlier in the spring. Taken by both the fantastical backstory of the show and the craftsmanship of the work, he snapped it up immediately. When he finally saw the work in person, he was awed.
“You see that and you go, ‘Wow,’ ” he said. “I want to have art where if people see it, they go ‘Wow.’ “
What hasn’t sold is what’s apparently the most expensive work of the series, the bronze edition of Demon With Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement), 2017, the five-story sculpture that takes up a big chunk of the Palazzo Grassi. But it would be imprecise to say it’s the most expensive work in the show, because the bronze edition isn’t actually in the show—what you see there is a work in resin, as the bronze is too complicated to ship. Reportedly, that bronze edition is $14 million. (The entry point to buy is now $1.3 million, I have heard.)
Things have been very festive here in Venice if you’re in the Hirst business. On Thursday night, there had just been an enormous party thrown in his honor by his two galleries, White Cube and Gagosian, at the loggia of the Rialto Market; the night before, Pinault had his annual dinner at the Cini Foundation, and that, too, was a night to fete Damien Hirst.
At one point on Thursday I went back out to the dock, the moon still full, and was asked for a light by a large English bloke in a hat. He said that his name was Werner—”as in Werner Herzog”—and he informed me that he was Damien’s mate from back in the day in Leeds. Werner had been the model for one of the works.
“I had never been to Venice, but Damien called me up and asked me if I wanted to come,” he said. “And I looked it up, and it was only 60 quid to get here. It’s cheaper than going to Devon! So I said to Damien, I want British Airways, motherfucker, and that was only 130 quid!”
I asked him if he was enjoying his first time in Venice.
“Well, Devon’s beautiful, but Devon’s not like this,” he said.
I wondered which work he modeled for, and he said it is the lapis lazuli sculpture of Neptune, and then, without prompting, he started talking about how much it sold for.
“It was $5 million dollars, one of the most expensive works in the show,” he said, the moon shining down on the canal. “And it sold, so now I’m part of art history.”