Is Damien Hirst trying to influence the art market?

imageDespite his huge wealth, Damien Hirst is still obsessed with making his paintings pay.There is an old joke that the clue to contemporary art is in the name: it is a con, and it is temporary. Even those inured to the industry’s excesses, however, might have been surprised by a report at the weekend about Damien Hirst. Not apparently content with his £215 million fortune, the original Young British Artist has allegedly taken to “bullying” auction houses into refusing to sell prints individually, insisting that they should be sold only as a complete package.

The work in question was In a Spin, the Action of the World on Things, a 4ft by 3ft box covered in one of Hirst’s iconic spin paintings, which are created by a machine pouring paint on to a canvas. Inside each box (Hirst made 68 of them) are 23 signed prints of spin images.

John Brandler, an art dealer in Essex, tried last month to sell two of the box-top paintings, valued around £75,000, via Phillips de Pury, the auctioneers. They refused, despite handling two similar sales recently, saying that Hirst was now opposed to anyone attempting to sell In a Spin without the accompanying prints. Given that many of these prints are already owned individually, bought for between £2,000 and £4,000, there are fears that people might have unwittingly bought an unrealisable investment.

Nonsense, said a spokeswoman for Hirst, blaming a “miscommunication internally” at the auctioneers. Hirst was interested only in ensuring that buyers knew the prints were part of one artwork and correctly attributed. He was not interested in preventing people selling what they wanted.

A more cynical soul might beg to differ. For Hirst, 46, has never shied away from squeezing every last drop of cash out of his work: on one occasion he forced a 16-year-old student who’d used an image of his diamond-studded skull for an internet collage to hand over £200.

Having shot to prominence in 1992 when Charles Saatchi displayed his shark in formaldehyde (dismissed by one newspaper as “£50,000 for fish without chips”), Hirst cemented his place as Britain’s richest artist in 2008 when a Sotheby’s auction of his work raised £111 million in two days. It was reported that some of his closest business associates, who had an interest in maintaining the high value of his work, accounted for £40 million of the bids and purchases on the first day.

However bizarre, such practices appear widespread in the unregulated art industry. The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, a BBC documentary by Ben Lewis in 2008, uncovered a world of secretive deals, tax breaks and market manipulation. “Contemporary art has now become a poker game for the richest men and women in the world,” wrote Lewis. “They are daring each other to raise the stakes and call their bluff.”

The price of contemporary art increased fourfold between 1996 and 2006. And despite its dip in late 2008 it recovered within six months, attracting collectors from the Middle and Far East, eager for a commodity that, like gold, provides an attractive investment in a world of fluctuating currency markets.

How long the bubble can last is another question. In a 2008 book on the art market, Don Thompson quoted a former director of the Museum of Modern Art saying that 40 per cent of the top end of the market is made up of forgeries – at one point there were 600 Rembrandts in museums, despite research showing that the artist produced only 320 paintings.

Thompson also revealed that, of the 1,000 artists with serious shows in London and New York in the Eighties, only 20 were being displayed in comparable venues in 2007.

Such ephemerality might be a sobering thought for an artist as apparently obsessed with mortality as Hirst. His star, however, still shows little sign of waning; next year the Tate is honouring him with a showcase of two decades of his most important works.

Neither is it the emperor’s fault if no one has noticed that he’s naked. He’s entitled to try to influence the market, just as the market is entitled to ignore him. It’s not as if he hasn’t warned us. Of his spin works, Hirst once said: “They’re bright and they’re zany – but there’s f— all there at the end of the day.” And in 2004 he wrote of dealers: “Most of the time they are all selling s— to fools, and it’s getting worse.”

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