Is Damien Hirst Still a Good Investment? Here’s What the Data Says About the State of the Famed Artist’s Market
Damien Hirst is, infamously, doing pretty well for himself. The 56-year-old is the richest artist in England, due in part to the branding power of his recognizable bodies of work, factory-like studio operation, and bad-boy persona (despite his largesse, he still makes a point of mugging off the camera like a punk raging against the machine).
Hirst exploded onto the scene in the 1990s alongside the YBAs with his gory conceptual shark sculpture, and went on to win the Turner Prize. At the height of his market before the 2007–08 financial crisis, his sculptural provocations were raking in eight-figure sums at auction.
Although he is still a household name pulling in the greenbacks on the primary market, the wild success of his auction peak has since nosedived, and his market has yet to recover. Meanwhile, his credibility as an establishment disruptor has softened considerably given his commercial success, and he has been slammed in recent years for his unimaginative concepts and unfair labor practices.
He has nevertheless continued to produce works, some more provocative than others, that respond to his key interests in themes of death, science, religion, and money. His latest provocation was a playful experiment with the froth for NFTs: “The Currency” asked every buyer to choose whether to trade in an NFT token for a physical work on paper, or to keep the digital edition, after which Hirst would literally burn the corresponding drawing. Most buyers favored IRL artworks, and early secondary market results show stronger prices for the objects than the NFTs, indicating the market still rates at least some of Hirst’s physical works.
But what about the rest of his oeuvre? We took to the Artnet Price Database to find out.
Auction Record: $19.2 million, achieved at Sotheby’s in June 2007
Hirst’s Performance in 2021
Lots sold: 678
Bought in: 142
Sell-through rate: 82.7 percent
Average sale price: $55,898
Mean estimate: $44,061
Total sales: $37.9 million
Top overall price: $6.9 million
Lowest overall price: $95, for a small, signed butterfly spin painting dated 2009
- Market froth. Hirst’s auction market first began to heat up in the early 2000s, when works were selling out quickly on the primary market. Overall prices reached their zenith in 2007, when a 2002 work, Lullaby Spring, a glass cabinet filled with miniature handmade pills, which responded to Hirst’s early iconic works, including his spot paintings and medicine cabinets, sold for $19.2 million at Sotheby’s.
- Self-sabotage. Hirst’s market peaked in 2008. That year, his work flooded auctions, with volume increasing 63.4 percent to rake in $268.8 million in total sales. While it’s natural for more work to come to market in the wake of a record, the large volume was due to Hirst’s decision to bring 218 works directly from his studio to auction, a then-radical market gesture that cut out the galleries. The auction took place in September at Sotheby’s on the same night that Lehman Brothers collapsed and financial markets plunged, signaling the onset of the Great Recession. While the gesture was a supreme feat of marketing for the Hirst brand, it also oversaturated his market, and the following year, as financial stress was being felt elsewhere, total sales crashed 92.4 percent.
- Bucks for breakthrough. Post-2008, Hirst’s secondary market retreated in response to over-supply, and buyers became more selective. Competition and high prices in the ensuing years focused on Hirst’s breakthrough pieces from the 1990s and early 2000s, such as his spot paintings, medicine cabinets, and early installation works. Opportunities to buy remain in early large-scale complicated installations, as many are put off by the upkeep and storage requirements. That means even important installations from the 1990s can still be found in a relatively affordable price bracket. Elsewhere, people have been sleeping on a few rare-to-market 1990s spot paintings in the day sales, many of which still bear marks of the artist’s hand in small imperfections that disappeared after he ramped up his studio operation.
- Market blooming. In recent years, Hirst has hit on a winning formula with a newer body of work. Rapidly gaining market traction are Hirst’s popular “cherry blossom” paintings, which can fetch anywhere between $750,000 and $3.5 million on the primary market either through Gagosian, White Cube, or his own company Science Ltd, according to the New York Times. While they are produced in a factory-line operation, they are coveted: one of them smashed its estimate to sell for $5.6 million at Sotheby’s New York this spring. Other popular series at the moment include his glossy butterfly paintings and items from his mythical 2017 Venice exhibition, “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable.”
- Horizon lines. Last year was Hirst’s best at auction since the crash, with works generating some $37.9 million. But that comes with a caveat: 820 works were on offer, a 28.9 percent jump upwards from the 2008 highpoint. The total sales figure is still 85.9 percent less than his peak, and a zebra in formaldehyde that sold at his 2008 auction for $1.9 million resold at Sotheby’s for $782,000 in 2021. Still, there are positive signs for the market: 12,178 users have searched Artnet’s Price Database for Hirst in the past 12 months, and so far in 2022, he is the sixth-best-performing contemporary artist at auction, with works making some $28.1 million.
A resurgence in Hirst’s market this year could partly be attributed to the wider economic situation. People tend to flock to brand names in a recession as a surer hold of value against inflation, and Hirst’s ubiquitous brand certainly won’t hurt him in that respect. That said, the art market tends to lag behind general world events, so it may be too early to posit that buyer psychology alone is driving the trend. Another obvious factor is the increase in volume of works to auction.
Overall, however, Hirst’s decision in recent years to veer away from vitrines and spot paintings to large, abstract, colorful compositions such as the cherry blossoms has dovetailed with market tastes that have moved away from dry conceptual work towards expressionistic, painterly works on canvas. With the cherry blossoms in particular—recognizable decorative works that are easy to house—Hirst seems to have hit on just the right market alchemy, which explains why his teams are honing in on the cherry blossom paintings for museum shows, which are currently on view at National Art Centre Tokyo, following an outing at Fondation Cartier in Paris last year.
These are being produced at volume, but are still highly sought after, and there have been strong results for those that have appeared at auction so far. It’s too early to say for sure, but if you watch this space, you just might see something bloom.
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