The sale of For the Love of God – a diamond-encrusted skull (see picture below) – for £50m last week crowns a remarkable summer for Damien Hirst, says the Evening Standard. The king of Britart had earlier raised £130m from a sell-out London exhibition and the “bling skull” fetched the most ever paid for a living artist’s work. But, as is often the case with Hirst, the sale was not quite as it seemed: he is part of the investment consortium that bought the skull – and it is still, effectively, up for sale.
“The only function left of contemporary art is that of investment capital,” says the critic Robert Hughes. Hirst, 42, has certainly come a long way since he hit headlines by putting a shark in a tank and making sculptures from medical supplies. Now he splits his time between London and a Devon farmhouse, shared with Californian wife Maia and three young sons. His empire’s engine-room is his “factory”: three workshops with more than 100 staff, on around £9 an hour, to realise his creative vision. He is unashamed by his lack of physical input – usually no more than adding his signature. “As progenitor of the idea, I am the artist,” he says. Artists from Rubens to Andy Warhol have used a similar system, says The Observer: Hirst’s contemporary hero, Jeff Koons, runs a “colour-by-numbers” system for assistants, who clock on and off with “old-fashioned punchcards”. But Hirst, who achieved an ‘E’ in his art A-level, has taken production and marketing to new levels. An ex-staff member recalls churning out Spot paintings using “random” colours – the key being speed of output. Theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn was non-plussed to discover that a Spin painting he’d paid £27,000 for had been knocked out by two children.
“Damien,” says Hirst’s mother Mary Brennan, “is my sin.” He was conceived out of wedlock and only discovered that his step-father, a second-hand car dealer from Leeds, was not his real father when he was 12. After failing to get into two art colleges, he secured a place at Goldsmiths, where, as The Economist notes, he understood “that publicity was the way to build his brand”. In 1988, he curated a show called Freeze, courting collectors (notably Charles Saatchi) and the press alike. From then on he was rarely out of the public eye, receiving “the same recognition and riches as footballers and rock stars”; chalking up a couple of convictions for shop-lifting along the way. A pivotal figure in Hirst’s rise was Jay Jopling, the old Etonian art dealer who runs the White Cube gallery, says the Evening Standard. But the real “mastermind behind his transformation to global brand” was Frank Dunphy, an accountant “on the seamier side of showbiz”.
Hirst credits Dunphy, 69, for getting him off the booze and setting him free financially. “Before he came along [12 years ago], I was like a punk, really. I didn’t care about money. Or I pretended not to care. He got me over the fear.” By no means all of their ventures have been successful – witness the 2003 collapse of the much-hyped Pharmacy restaurant. But with a fortune now conservatively put at £200m, the Damien Hirst brand-wagon continues to roll on. Is his output really worth millions? Hirst shrugs off the question. “An artwork is only worth what the next guy is going to pay for it,” he says. “What are pictures anyway? They’re just things that brighten the fucking room up at the end of the day, aren’t they?”
Could the market be tiring of the Emperor’s new clothes?
Had you invested in Damien Hirst a decade or more ago, you would certainly be in the money now. In 2001, The Economist reckoned his best-known works – the pickled creatures, the butterfly, spin and spot paintings – had increased in price 100-fold. Since then, they’ve gone through the roof. The art market is traditionally assumed to run at a two-year lag to the stockmarket. But surely the ‘sale’ of the ‘bling skull’ “marks the art cycle’s turn”, says Breakingviews. And given what Hirst paid experts at Hatton Garden to make it – £12m for the raw materials alone – he hardly achieved “a jewel of a price”. I wouldn’t bank on that, says The Daily Telegraph. Taking out materials and labour, the price of Hirst’s “inspiration” alone is put at nearly £40m. Not bad, given that he didn’t make the skull, and that even his inspiration is open to question with at least one other artist claiming to have thought up the idea first.
Hirst is determined that his legacy, and that of contemporaries he admires, will live on. Two years ago he bought Toddington Manor, a Gothic pile in Gloucestershire, which he is renovating at the cost of £10m to house his Murderme collection (so-called “because my mum wouldn’t let me call it Buggerme”). But will his oeuvre be worth anything in 50 years’ time? Some of his friends are sceptical. “It’s like this great illusion getting bigger and bigger,” one told the Evening Standard. “It’s soaring in value now, but really it’s the emperor’s new clothes… he doesn’t even know himself to what extent he’s a legitimate artist.”