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A formaldehyde frenzy as buyers snap up Hirst works

Arts Correspondent,Arifa Akbar
Tuesday 16 September 2008 00:00 BST

Damien Hirst's audacious plot to take his creations straight to auction paid off last night as he set a new personal record of £10.3m for one artwork in the first part of a two-part sale. The astounding £70.5m total raised at Sotheby's in London exceeded all expectations. The previous auction record for a work by Hirst was £9.7m.

The Bristol-born artist's The Golden Calf, a sculpture of a bullock in formaldehyde, with hooves and horns cast in solid 18-carat gold, went under the hammer for a record £10.3m. Another star lot, a tiger shark in formaldehyde called The Kingdom, made £9.6m – more than £3m above its expected price.

Hirst's decision to take 223 works straight to auction, bypassing the gallery owners and dealers who normally take a hefty commission, was watched closely by the art world and set a precedent for artists seeking to maximise their profits.

On the opening night of the two-day sale, Hirst's creations beat their combined expected sale price of £65m. The auctions, the second of which is tonight, were forecast to rake in £98m but, after last night's performance, experts are predicting a far better overall result.

The profit from most of the works sold will go straight into Hirst's pocket, because buyers' premiums are charged separately and Sotheby's has waived its auction fees. It is the first time an artist of Hirst's stature has bypassed his usual dealer and gallery and sold his works directly to the public.

All of yesterday's 56 lots were sold and 167 more will go under the hammer tonight. A few days ago, Hirst confessed to having jitters about his big gamble, saying: "I imagine it going: 'Lot nine – no bids. Lot 10 – still no bids.'"

He need not have worried. Less than five minutes into the sale, the first lot exceeded its estimated price by £400,000. The first real high point came soon afterwards.

Lot five, a pickled tiger shark, had an estimate of £6m, but after ten minutes of frenzied activity by two determined telephone bidders, the hammer went down at £9.6m. The price was a record for a work in formaldehyde (the previous was £1.8m) that generated a ripple of applause in the auction room.

Within half an hour of the sale starting, the bidders crammed into four rooms had put another £14m into Hirst's bulging bank account – for a mere eight artworks.

The event was strictly all-ticket and limited to 656 clients, arguably making a mockery of Hirst's attempt to "democratise" the sale of his artwork. But this was not just history in the making, it was also theatrical spectacle. The sale room in New Bond Street was filled to capacity, with the auction relayed on video screens and auxiliary auctioneers on standby.

Before the auction, 21,000 visitors turned up to see the show, called "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever", making it the most-viewed pre-sale exhibition in London auction history. Record numbers of auction catalogues were sold as memorabilia for £50 a time, rather than the usual £29.

The excitement in the sale room proved that Hirst's maverick attempt to bring his wares directly to the market had captured the imagination of an audience far bigger than the usual art-collecting crowd, with rock stars, Wall Street traders and the general public keen to share in a moment of history.

On Saturday, a private party to mark the sale was attended by Bono from U2, Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, the actor-director Kevin Spacey, and Daria Zhukova, the girlfriend of Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich.

Cheyenne Westphal, chairman of contemporary art for Sotheby's in Europe, said the show was the biggest exhibition of the 43-year-old Hirst's work to date. He added: "We wanted to show it as an exhibition because although Damien has had lots of offers he has never agreed to a major retrospective. He doesn't feel old enough."

Hirst was reported to have been nervous about the outcome, not least because Sotheby's saw its share price fall by 8 per cent last Thursday, although it recovered the next day. His anxiety was compounded by fears that the sale might flop because he had saturated his market.

But Hirst has worked hard to establish his commercial might in the auction room. Last year, a 10ft-wide stainless steel medicine chest – filled with coloured tablets and called Lullaby Spring – was sold for £9.7m, making him the world's most expensive living artist at the time.

This was followed by his (RED) charity auction, which broke records and must surely have given Hirst more confidence in the unquenched demand for his work.

Oliver Barker, senior specialist in contemporary art at Sotheby's, said the auction was an "experiment that is breaking new ground", adding that many of the works in the auction were small paintings that were affordable to many.

"From the outset, Damien wanted to democratise this sale so that everybody could be involved," he said yesterday.

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