That Damien Hirst sale. Was it an entirely legal scam?
This is Robin Simon's editorial in The British Art Journal, Vo. IX, No. 2 (Autumn 2008)
Left hand, right hand…
We promise not to mention the Turner Prize ever again. With any luck, euthanasia will soon be applied to what is clearly a very sick patient: the Turner Prize has been moribund for years. Finally, this time, even the national press appears to have despaired and its otherwise gallant troopers, the several art critics who have become accustomed to just reprinting the press release or repeating the jargon of a ‘curator of interpretation’, have decided to criticize the quality of what is on offer. This long drawn-out exercise in pseudo-competition, complete with a pretence of public nominations, has done good service. Not in the cause of art, but in public relations, promoting to prominence one limited kind of art that no member of the public would voluntarily have paid real money to see, and in gaining vast publicity for the empire Tate buildings.
The appearance of the latest array has coincided with some more than usually odd goings-on within the world of art PR. The strangest was undoubtedly the Damien Hirst auction at Sotheby’s, which is still being reported as having ‘made’ £111m. For whom? This was an operation along similar lines to the ‘sale’ of Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull for a purported £50m, one of those adapatations of existing designs that might be termed ‘derivatives’: and about as risky an investment as those speculative vehicles that have brought the world’s financial market to its knees. In the case of the skull, it transpired that the major shareholder in the supposed purchasing partnership was none other than… Damien Hirst. Did he hand over money from left hand to right hand? Could it be that this was not what is usually understood by the term purchase?
Certainly, the ‘auction’ was a farce. Hirst announced that he was going to take the bold step of going to auction and cutting out his dealers. There was nothing bold about it. For who should turn out to have been a major bidder and ‘buyer’ but Hirst’s dealer, Jay Jopling. The whole thing looks very much as though it was a ploy whereby the value of Hirst stocks was maintained at little or, conceivably, no cost to either the artist or the dealer (and there was no seller’s premium to pay). Indeed, two other bidders at the auction were also Hirst dealers. And so was the money supposedly involved , one might wonder, merely passing back and forth again, from one hand to the other?
The elaborate net thus cast at Sotheby’s caught a mere dozen or so genuine suckers who did not know what was going on and who paid prices that in some instances were pushed up by underbidding on the part of experienced dealers with a vested interest in keeping prices high. These foolish virgins (they were mostly first-time buyers from such well-known art-loving countries as Kazakhstan) should take heed of the lessons of history and the experience of those ruined by the bursting of the South Sea and Mississippi bubbles in the 18th century. Similar exercises took place then in the manipulation of evidence to make it appear that the relevant stocks had genuine value. But the lucky ones – chiefly those operating the scam – sold out and got out before the bubble burst. One of those fortunate to escape with their profits, incidentally, was Sir James Thornhill, who had been tipped off by Robert Knight, cashier of the South Sea Company, whose house he was decorating. Knight nipped off to a long and happy retirement in France; Thornhill bought back the family estate in Dorset. The time for holders of Hirst stocks to be worried is at the merest hint of either the artist or his dealers genuinely getting rid of their holdings…
One of the more tiresome myths peddled by Hirst and co., and dutifully repeated by the press, is that this was the first time an artist had gone direct to auction with his own work. Thornhill’s son-in-law William Hogarth did it in 1745, the difference being that the sales on that occasion were all to genuine buyers – and that they were acquiring works of art of lasting value.