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He is shocking, rich and highly fashionable. but who actually buys Damien Hirst? And why? Jon Stock reports

Jon Stock
Saturday 08 April 1995 23:02 BST

SUNDAY LUNCH at the Saatchi household in Chelsea must be a strange affair, particularly when there's lamb on the menu. Welcomed by Charles, guests are confronted in the hall by a solitary sheep. Like a lobster at a Japanese restaurant, it's floating in a glass tank for all to see - a hint of what's to come. Only this animal is dead, and it's not food, but art.

Away From the Flock, as the piece is called, was created by Damien Hirst, artist, satyr and general bad boy of British Art. The animal is suspended in a 5 per cent formaldehyde solution and was bought by Saatchi last May at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington. Unaware, perhaps, of Smithfield on the other side of town, he paid a staggering £25,000 for it.

It's no secret that Saatchi is one of Hirst's most loyal admirers, although he has never gone on record and said exactly why he likes him. And an even bigger mystery is who else is currently buying Hirst's work. Aged just 30, he is the most successful British artist of his generation, the subject of TV documentaries, tabloid headlines and considerable envy. But who actually has the money, the space and, most particularly, the stomach for his controversial art? After all, one of his most famous pieces is a cow and calf split down the middle. Called Mother and Child Divides, it cost £65,000 to assemble; the asking price is £140,000, and it's still for sale.

To the outsider, the present contemporary-art scene in Britain seems a furtive, paranoid world. No one likes to talk prices, or to discuss openly what works they own. Deals are done in backrooms rather than galleries. Instead there are private pre-previews, transatlantic phone calls, briefcases full of transparencies, nods and winks at international art fairs. You don't walk into a Hirst exhibition and plonk on a red sticker.

Trying to discover who buys Hirst, let alone why, or for how much, is fraught with difficulties. Jay Jopling, the trendy Old Etonian who is Hirst's agent, will not disclose the names of buyers. "I just can't do that, I'm sorry. All I will say is that there is a demand for his work from a broad selection of private collectors. Many of them, particularly in Europe, are young, perhaps buying art for the first time."

Saatchi himself provides a clue to the identity of these mysterious collectors. He currently owns 12 of Hirst's pieces, including a 16ft tiger shark, flies, maggots, insectocutors, medicine cabinets, old drugs' bottles, cows' organs, two sheep's heads, and enough fish to fill the Irish Box. A notorious recluse, the ad man is the biggest collector of contemporary art in Britain, and his tightly knit set of friends tend to follow his lead, some might say slavishly. "People's sentiments can be swayed terribly easily. They tend to follow Saatchi," says Danny Moynihan, an artist and friend of Hirst.

Take, for example, the pop stars David Bowie and Dave Stewart. They are not young any more, but they were recently spotted at the ultra-fashionable River Caf in Hammer-smith having dinner with Saatchi and - guess who? - Damien Hirst. Better known as one half of the Eurythmics than as a serious art collector, Stewart now owns a piece by Hirst - a "spot" painting (one of a series of Hirst canvases painted with brightly coloured dots).

"Stewart is one of Charles's group," says Gordon Watson, a former collector who now runs an Art Deco shop in Fulham. "Bowie is too. There is always another motivation for why people buy art. People are buying Damien's work because it projects a certain image of themelves. It's a status symbol. They might want to make money, too. Hirst's name can now be bandied around at grand dinner parties. He's gone beyond being a Young British Artist and is part of the avant-garde establishment."

Stewart is proud of his blossoming friendship with Hirst. Perhaps the public association with a radical young artist is just the sort of fillip an ageing rock star needs. Bowie, too, is is rumoured to have bought a Hirst piece, and there's keen interest in Bowie's first ever solo exhibition of his own works, in Cork Street later this month. Some say Hirst has had a strong influence on him.

If, as Watson and Moynihan seem to be suggesting, we must look for a range of motivations for why people buy Hirst (liking the work may not be the only factor), it seems that the artist's own character has exerted considerable influence on prospective buyers. A cult of personality has grown up around him, largely based on stories of marathon drinking sessions ("three-day existentialist benders," as one of his companions describes them) in the French House and the Colony Club - old Soho haunts once frequented by Francis Bacon and others. It's as if this is somehow reassuring, that it confirms Hirst's pedigree as a true artist.

There's no doubt that Hirst has got something. He is charming, mischievous, sharp (although not at his most articulate when talking about his own work) and people who know him speak of his boundless generosity. He is also devoted to his girlfriend Mala, a jeweller, and is about to be a father any day now. All of which doesn't add up to a reason in itself to buy Hirst, but perhaps it helps when the pen is hovering above the chequebook.

Jill Ritblat, wife of wealthy businessman John Ritblat, bought one of his "spot" wall paintings in 1988 at Freeze, the seminal show in Docklands which launched Hirst's career: "Sometimes you ask yourself why a certain artist has got so many collectors," she says. "You look at the work and wonder why. Then you meet the artist and find out how nice he is. Damien is inspiring, interesting, amusing and a wonderful person. He is also very aware of the heroic figure of the artist and wanted to get a profile for himself very early on. Ultimately, though, I think the work speaks for itself."

It's a dodgy subject to raise with collectors, who pride themselves on their acute artistic judgment, but I asked Larry "Go-Go" Gagosian, one of America's most influential contemporary art dealers, whether Hirst's character had played any part in influencing his decision to put on a major exhibition of his work later this year. "I first came across Hirst when I was in London visiting Charles Saatchi," says Gagosian. "I saw the shark piece and was immediately struck by it. We've since been out for a few beers in Manhattan, and he's been down to my house. It sounds corny, but you feel you are in the presence of a real artist. I don't know what influence that should have but there's an intensity, drive, an ambition about him."

Hirst's contemporaries must be wondering what they are doing wrong. Aren't they "real artists" too? Arguably, there is very little to separate his work from many of his fellow Goldsmiths' College students - the Class of '88, as they were dubbed (Abigail Lane, Angus Fairhurst, Matt Collishaw, Ian Davenport and co). But the difference is that Hirst is acutely aware of how the art world works and his own position within it. A regular at private views, he savours the politics, the gossip, the media attention, and knows that it's not enough just to make art. A public profile is essential, in the media and on the street. He loved it when the Daily Star brought along a portion of chips to one of his fish installations. "Damien plays the game," says Moynihan. "Freud played it, so did Bacon. It has to be played."

Given that Saatchi is one of the shrewdest image-makers of the last 20 years it is no surprise that he warms to Hirst's own particular brand of self-presentation. It could also explain why other advertising moguls have been buying Hirst. Jay Chiat, an American ad man, has rearranged his Manhattan house to accommodate one of Hirst's pieces. And an anonymous young advertising executive from Germany recently walked into a gallery in Cologne and spent £15,000 on a Hirst sculpture, the first work of modern art he had ever bought.

But these men don't talk. "The mystique is all very calculated," says Watson. Ah, the mystique. It's none of our business, of course, but if collectors refuse to say why they like an artist, we can only marvel at their integrity, their perspicacity.

It was refreshing to stumble across one young English collector happy to speak openly about Hirst. He is neither an advertising mogul nor does he know the artist. Robert Tibbles is 34 and earns his money as a City bond salesman. His flat in Earl's Court is just north of the Boltons, and he confounds those who say that Hirst's work is not the sort to hang above the mantlepiece. Contemporary art is scattered throughout his three rooms and there, above a mantlepiece, is one of Hirst's "spot" paintings.

"I'm absolutely delighted with it. It's eight and a half feet by six and a half feet and looks excellent. I had a limited budget, but I knew I wanted to buy proper works of art, not prints or copies." Tibbles owns three Hirst pieces and is now buying a fourth. (His employers in New York also own the largest Hirst "spot" painting in the world.) Tibbles's first purchase was a Hirst medicine cabinet which is securely fastened against the wall in one corner (it fell off once).

"I bought the medicine cabinet in 1988. Some of my friends were outraged. They said it was absolute rubbish. Of course, now that he is quite well known, it's different. It's the `Who's it by? Oh, Van Gogh. I love it ' syndrome. My father told me to sell it when he became popular and prices were soaring. But I do enough buying and selling at work, thank you. Trying to sell in the art market is a nightmare. By bond standards, the market is `illiquid' - so much prevaricating. It would take six months to get the money."

Tibbles is candid about how nave he was when he first got involved with buying contemporary art, and his story provides a telling example of how the market can work. A young man arrives on the art scene with little experience and a lot of money. It's a scenario dealers usually only dream about. He is courted by a range of dealers, including Richard Salmon, Nicholas Logsdail, Karsten Schubert, Gordon Watson and Michael Craig Martin (Hirst's college teacher), all of whom have artists to recommend. "I was very timid and they were all very patient," says Tibbles. ``They must get people all the time who express interest but nothing comes of it. I was given excellent advice."

Few people have mastered the art of giving advice better than Craig Martin. Tibbles is only one of a number of wealthy people willing to listen to him. A trustee of the Tate, he is also friends with its director, Nick Serota, Saatchi and Leslie Waddington, another influential collector. His judgement is widely respected, particularly when it comes to Hirst. "Craig Martin is incredibly influential, part of a network," says Tamara Chodzko, who curated one of Hirst's shows. "He made something happen at Goldsmiths'."

A few drinks at the Colony Club, high-profile patrons in need of some status, a media image, mystique, a whispering campaign led by your influential teacher - the ingredients for a successful artist are beginning to come clear. But how does one actually go about buying a Damien Hirst, and how much would it cost? I contacted White Cube, the gallery run by Jay Jopling in Duke Street, and the American woman I spoke to couldn't have been more helpful.

"There is an exhibition here in the middle of May," she said. "The show consists of one piece, a new steel and glass cabinet with surgical equipment inside. It will cost around £33,500."

But can I come to the exhibition and put a red sticker on it?

"The best thing to do is make an appointment with Jay beforehand and have a look at some transparencies. The piece isn't finished yet. We already have two people interested. If you don't get it, we can always let you know if something else comes up. There will shortly be a new series of `spot' paintings. The 20 x 30 ones will be £3,000 each."

Although it is generally first come first served at White Cube (whoever puts their reserve on first gets the piece) Jopling likes to sound out his buyers. There is a considerable secondary market for Hirst's work and understandably he doesn't want to see a piece being flogged at an art fair the next week for twice the price. (In the Eighties, when the secondary market was bigger, it was not unknown for buyers to use false names.) It's one good reason, perhaps, why there is so much secrecy.

"We try to find the best home for the work," Jopling says charitably. In other words, serious collectors and institutions like the Hirshorn in Washington, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and London's Tate - all of which have bought Hirst's work recently.

And then, of course, there's Saatchi, an institution himself. Without his patronage, young contemporary artists in Britain face an uphill struggle. For those whose work he does collect, usually in bulk, the worry is what happens when he decides to sell. "The power he wields is quite dangerous," says Moynihan.

The value of Hirst's work in particular would go into freefall if Saatchi woke up one morning and changed his tastes. Hirst must be praying that lamb stays on the menu. !

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