Rembrandt? I'm just like him, says Hirst – it's all about cash

A ground-breaking auction of new works by Damien Hirst could fetch £65m, but his gallery won't see a penny of it. Arifa Akbar reports
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The Independent Culture

He may be one of a few living artists whose work sells for unprecedented sums in galleries and auction houses across the world but Damien Hirst yesterday said his shrewd eye for business was inherited from the likes of Rembrandt, Velasquez and Goya.

Hirst, 43, considered one of the biggest "brands" in the art world, was defending his selling practices from those who suggested he functioned like a business rather than an artist.

Speaking at Sotheby's, which will stage a groundbreaking auction dedicated to 223 new works by the artist next week, he said the tradition of making money in the art world was a long and illustrious one.

"Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya, I think they were all thinking about the commercial aspects of art. I believe I'm only doing what any of these artists would be doing if they were alive," he said.

The Sotheby's sale, titled "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever", is expected to raise £65m. It is a dramatic departure from protocol for a contemporary artist. They normally sell through galleries and dealers that charge substantial commission – up to 50 per cent.

The collection of works made over two years by Hirst and his "factory" of 180 assistants include butterfly paintings and pill cabinets as well as "The Golden Calf", a calf in formaldehyde adorned with 18-carat gold horns and hooves, as well as a unicorn in formaldehyde, both of which were Hirst's "favourite" pieces.

It has created one of the biggest stirs in the industry as Hirst has effectively eliminated the middle man, which in his case, is White Cube Gallery in London.

This is the first time an artist has sold a substantial body of work in this way.

Hirst confirmed that Sotheby's has waived its fee so his pieces will realise 100 percent profit. He said: "A lot of people believe artists should be poor, that you're not a real artist unless you are covered in paint with holes in your jeans.

"I think I have helped change that perception, me and Andy Warhol and Picasso and all guys who took the commercial aspects on board. I don't think I would have done it if Warhol hadn't done it. He made it acceptable ... There's a hell of a lot of money in art, but artists don't get it."

But he added: "As an artist, your goal has to be something else. The art will outshine the money."

Hirst's comments followed a broadside by art critic Robert Hughes, who condemned him for "functioning like a commercial brand" and destroying any true understanding of art by placing importance on the price tag of an artwork.

He described one of Hirst's most famous works, "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" – a shark pickled in formaldehyde – as "the world's most over-rated marine organism", adding "It is a clever piece of marketing, but as a piece of art it is absurd." The shark sold for £8m in 2004.

Hirst suggested he was part of an old guard that could not adjust to new ideas in art. "I wouldn't expect anything less from Robert Hughes. He probably cried when Queen Victoria died. I think it is Luddite really.

"As an artist, you make art for people who have not been born yet," he said, adding that the auction was, "a 'greatest hits' exhibition. I have tried to reinvent myself. I'm a bit exhausted now. I'm Damien Hirst, I can't get away from that.

"I just need more space to think. The work in this exhibition is of a younger artist. It is a great way for me to draw a line across it and move on."

Old and new masters


*In 1629 he was discovered by a Dutch statesman who procured him court commissions.

*Prince Frederik Hendrik and Dutch aristocrats paid lavishly for his works.

*Rembrandt and his wife Saskia were known for displays of affluence, buying an opulent home with a debt that would later cause difficulties.

*Rembrandt built a large collection of art and antiquities.

*He cavorted with fashionable society, including Cosimo III de'Medici.Damien Hirst

*The influential dealer Charles Saatchi was Hirst's champion in the 1990s, turning his work into a hot commodity.

*His work commands some of the highest prices in the world and is bought by leading Arab families.

*He owns 30 to 40 properties around the world, including a £3m country pile in Gloucester andtwo Georgian houses in Mayfair.

*His impressive personal collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Francis Bacon.

*Until he gave up drinking and smoking he was a bon viveur, partying with rock stars and actors.