So is Hirst original really worth £285,000?

Damien Hirst's Pharmacy restaurant may not have been a huge success, but the sale of its contents earned the artist £9.6m. Terry Kirby asks art-market experts whether buyers got value for money
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a creative field of vision which includes dead and pickled sharks, six-legged sheep and butterflies turned into stained glass, a pair of Damien Hirst's ashtrays might seem an inconsequential matter. But when, on Monday night, an anonymous buyer paid more than £1,000 for two Hirst-designed ashtrays in a sale of fixtures and fittings from the former Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill, it was a sign of the reverence with which the artist is now being regarded. The ashtrays were expected to sell for about £30.

In a creative field of vision which includes dead and pickled sharks, six-legged sheep and butterflies turned into stained glass, a pair of Damien Hirst's ashtrays might seem an inconsequential matter. But when, on Monday night, an anonymous buyer paid more than £1,000 for two Hirst-designed ashtrays in a sale of fixtures and fittings from the former Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill, it was a sign of the reverence with which the artist is now being regarded. The ashtrays were expected to sell for about £30.

They were part of an astonishing sale in which bidders from around the world frantically fought against each other for items such as martini glasses, tables, chairs and some actual artwork - two butterfly paintings and two medicine cabinets which had been on display in the restaurant - realising prices 10 or 20 times their estimates. The sale netted a final total of £11m and surpassed all Sotheby's expectations. The figure included a world-record auction price for a Hirst piece of £1.2m for Phillacid, one of the medicine cabinets.

But as well as pleasing Sotheby's and earning a tidy sum for the artist himself, the sale was being seen by many in the art world as cementing Hirst's world-wide reputation. He is no longer seen as a slightly crazed, wild-eyed member of the idiosyncratic Brit-Art scene, but as a serious player whose legacy will live on long after his dead sharks have finally succumbed to putrefaction.

"I can't think of anyone who could have generated such fantastic interest in their own lifetime apart from figures like Andy Warhol and Picasso," said Cheyenne Westphal, head of contemporary art for Sotheby's Europe, who organised the sale. "We obviously expected that everything would realise its estimated values, but what we did not expect was the level of aggressive competition between bidders. We were amazed."

The sale also signified something else. Hirst, she said, was now being sought by collectors, dealers and galleries around the world in a way in which other members of his generation, such as Tracy Emin or the Chapman brothers had simply not yet been able to replicate. And as Ms Westphal pointed out, Hirst is still only mid-career - and has a long way to go. "I think he's the last great artist of the 20th century and will be the first one of this.''

Hirst was always the driving force of his generation. Born in Bristol in 1965, by the time he had graduated from Goldsmith's College in 1989, he had already organised Frieze, now considered the first major exhibition of the new swathe of artists who emerged under the collective umbrella of Brit Art in the 1990s. Two years later the tabloid press - and thus the general public - encountered him through the Saatchi Gallery's Young British Artists Series and his now iconic shark in formaldehyde entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Since then, there have been more sensational sharks, sheep, butterflies, dead flies, tanks full of gorgeous fish and rotting meat, spot painting, spiral painting and a whole sub-theme of work on operations and medical science. The Turner Prize, on his second nomination, came in 1995.

Despite the popular reputation for gore, for dead animals and rotting flesh, those who encounter other, less publicised, aspects of Hirst's work for the first time often remark on its sheer simple beauty and its relishing of nature: a case full of glistening, perfectly preserved sea shells in Tate Modern, the mosaics of butterflies, such as those that were hung in the recent In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida exhibition at Tate Britain and the huge, plastic skinless human torso on display at the Saatchi Collection at County Hall in London.

But Hirst has never been content to confine himself to one art form or even one art. He has made a pop video for Blur, designed an album cover for Dave Stewart and, with his drinking chum Keith Allen, the actor, created the pop group Fat Les, which stormed the charts with the World Cup anthem, "Vindaloo", in 1998.

Pharmacy, which he co-owned with the Groucho Club founder Liam Carson and the public-relations guru Matthew Freud, was his second venture into restaurants. Quo Vadis, an earlier project with the chef Marco Pierre White ended when their business relationship fell apart. Pharmacy itself, in the middle of Notting Hill, was an immediate success and soon established itself as a celebrity hang-out, particularly when Hirst was there. But as Hirst curbed his well-known drinking habits and spent less time there, his involvement diminished. It closed in September last year. The sale only took place after a Sotheby's executive saw the contents being loaded for storage.

The post-Pharmacy Hirst, now 39, is a different creature. During the past few years he has cut down on the drinking. He now spends most of his time with his wife and children at their home on a farm in north Devon. From there he commutes to his workshop on an industrial estate near Stroud in the Cotswolds where a team of helpers form his production line, churning out his spin painting or butterfly mosaics, a tactic reminiscent of the other great populist, Warhol.

But is the hype and excitement justified? In a couple of hundred years, will the successor to the National Gallery or Tate Modern be conducting a huge Raphael-style retrospective? Or will that honour go to Tracy Emin?

Tim Marlow, a director of the White Cube gallery, owned by Jay Jopling, which exhibits many of Hirst's works for the first time, thinks he will endure: "What more traditional critics do not appreciate is that Damien's work is rooted in an understanding of art history. He deals with big themes and questions of our age: the life cycle and death. Issues of religion and religious iconography inform his work, as they have done with great artists throughout the century. He was raised a Catholic and he reflects it in his work."

Mr Marlow believes that Hirst's success lies in his ability to read and anticipate the cultural zeitgeist. "He is always one or two steps ahead. He always surprises people; he never seems flat, he's always on top." And will he be around in 200 years? "I think the whole movement with which he is associated has given a new meaning to ideas of transience in art. But people who say his cows will rot are missing the point - you can always put another one in the tank."

Another fan is Stefanie Bortolami, formerly a director of the New York-based Gagosian Galleries, one of the world's biggest dealers. "Hirst is the biggest British artist in the United States," she says. "He is very desirable and is being bought by his contemporary age group. Others like Emin are, frankly, unheard of here.''

Ms Bortolami added: "I think he will be around for a long while - galleries who assemble a 1990s collection have to have Hirst now. And they need something from every type of his output - a tank, a spin painting, a mosaic. It doesn't work like that with other painters."

Others are not convinced. Dr Julian Stallabrass, senior lecturer in contemporary art at the Courtauld Institute in London, said: "You have to admire the chutzpah. It amazes me how people have been able to take his work so seriously for so long. People are borne along by the hype, but I don't think he has produced anything decent in recent years - he keeps recycling the same set of ideas to milk a speculative market. And I think it's remarkable that people would pay £9.6m for what is basically a load of old shop fittings."

Dr Stallabrass said the history of art was full of similar examples. In the mid-18th century, a French painter called Alphonse Bourguereau was acclaimed for his highly stylised paintings of rural themes. "His work was like much of Hirst's: very smooth, almost photo-realistic and hugely popular at the time. People paid high prices for his work. Almost no one outside art history courses has heard of him now."

Comments