Join the dots: on the trail of that missing Hirst

When Chris Evans announced he had sent a work by BritArt's best-known living artist to a charity shop by mistake, it sparked a frenzy in Surrey. Sort of
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The Independent Culture

There it was! Hidden among the second-hand clothes in the charity shop was a rolled-up print, with brightly coloured spots just visible. The missing Damien Hirst dot piece, worth tens of thousands of pounds. The woman at the till accepted a fiver – and I walked out of there with the print under my arm, ready to sell it on for a fortune.

"Yeah, me too," said Rachel Turvey, manager of Help the Aged in Godalming, Surrey, laughing. The same desperate dream has been obsessing the good people of this small commuter town since Chris Evans told listeners to his BBC Radio 2 show on Wednesday that he had made a terrible mistake.

"I've been moving house," said Evans, who sold his £10m mansion near Godalming. "Some of the stuff goes in boxes to stay, and some to go. In one of the boxes to go was a signed Damien Hirst."

His driver took the boxes to a charity shop in Godalming. Or maybe Cranleigh. He couldn't remember. "I'm not a Damien Hirst fan," said the driver, summoned to tell his story live on air and identified only as Mark. "I know he does things that involve stuffing sheep. I can go back there to see if it's around," he told his boss, "but now you've gone on air they'll be inundated."

They certainly were, said Jeannick Roubeau, 47, who runs one of eight charity shops in Godalming (there's one in Cranleigh). Suddenly there were many more shoppers than usual – both locals and visitors from London. "Not the normal customers at all," said Ms Roubeau, whose "unique little shop" raises funds for the Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice. "We haven't got it."

Did Cancer Research have it? "No comment," said a woman, "but no." The Mind shop? "No." Debra, a charity for a rare skin condition? "Not us, unfortunately." Tanya Lunn at Oxfam in Cranleigh said: "I would have spotted it. I did a Fine Art degree." Was the print with the British Heart Foundation? "No." Barnardo's was closed, but there was no sign of a big white artwork through the shop window. "We haven't got it either," said Ms Turvey, 28. "Who knows whether it was handed in at all?"

It couldn't all be a hoax, could it? Surely a famously mischievous DJ with a scattergun mouth wouldn't get everyone excited for nothing, would he? Nobody believed Evans when he said he would sell off his possessions at a market after splitting up with his second wife, Billie Piper, but he did exactly that. He laughed all the way through the story on Wednesday – but then the multimillionaire is paid more than £500,000 by Radio 2. He can afford to lose a valuable artwork.

I can't. I was determined to find it among the other bargains in Help the Aged: a checked cotton shirt for £2.99, a Jeffrey Archer novel for 50p and a really quite nice painting on silk, in a frame, for £10.

"We still have people coming in looking at the pictures," said Ms Turvey. "As if it's going to turn up now. Ridiculous, isn't it?" Er, yes. Absolutely, I said, sheepishly peering around. "We get a few hundred bags left on the doorstep every week," she said, "It would have been seen by now. If it was a signed print, we would have had it checked."

But what if I found it? "Come back to me!" So I did. After buying a piece of white A3 card and a packet of coloured felt-tips. Half an hour of colouring in and there it was, my own Damien Hirst. Recognisable to anyone, or so you might think – but out on Godalming High Street hardly anyone seemed to know what the missing original looked like. "I'll keep my eyes open now you've told me," said Les Waddington, 73, a gardener.

Would anyone notice if it was right in front of them? I put mine on an easel among the stalls at The Pepperpot, the octagonal 19th-century building on the High Street. Then I waited. And waited. A woman in sunglasses pointed and nodded to her friend, but other than that, nobody stopped.

There was nothing for it but the charity shop. Go on, I said to Ms Turvey, it's yours for a tenner. "You'd better see Ray," she said, laughing. Ray Beck, a 60-year-old who looked much younger in his skater T-shirt and dyed goatee, said: "Nah. I'll sell you a better one than that." Mr Beck is an artist himself. "I'm an Impressionist," he said. "I have sold pictures for up to £400 a time, but you have to be prolific to make money, like Hirst. Unfortunately, I'm not."

The painting had not been found as we went to press. The DJ hadn't confessed to kidding. The mystery had not been solved. But for one group in Godalming, there was a happy ending. "It's like a fairy story for us," said Ms Roubeau. "He has been our Prince Charming. This has been fantastic for the charity shops. Suddenly, we have become very, very popular."

Additional reporting by Martina Gauder

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