Byline: BEN LEWIS
For the past two weeks Damien Hirst has been telling news crews and reporters that his auction, which begins tonight, is a way to democratise the art market. Yet far from being a new dawn in democracy, the historic Hirst sale is the most stage-managed auction ever.
Tonight, at the first session of the sale in three parts (with the other two tomorrow morning and afternoon), in Sotheby's New Bond Street auction room, heavily invested Hirst collectors will be placed in the front rows.
Polite Sotheby's sales staff will open phone lines to oligarchs to facilitate anonymous bids. Two different senior sources from the London art world have told me that in recent days the auction house has contacted clients on its books, even those who don't collect Hirst, and urged them to bid at the auction, intimating that the future of the art market depends on its success. This suggests a dire warning: "Buy Hirsts or watch your own collections lose value." Only carefully vetted art critics will fill the press pen and sympathetic TV channels pack the camera podium.
Several members of the press thought to be critical of Hirst has been refused accreditation among them me.
I have been banned from attending the sale in a professional capacity. The reason? Because I criticised the contemporary art boom in the pages of this newspaper last November, in an article titled: Who put the "con" in contemporary art? Citing that article, Matthew Weigman, the head of sales publicity at Sotheby's, wrote to me: "In the ordinary course of things, your impressive credentials as a journalist, film-maker and commentator would have provided easy entrance through Sotheby's doors. But these are not ordinary circumstances.
The frank bias, even contempt, you have expressed in your commentary about the world of contemporary art, which is an important part of our business, is impossible to ignore & Therefore & we have taken the virtually unprecedented decision not to allow you to film during our upcoming exhibition and sale of works from the studio of Damien Hirst, nor to allow access into the press area for the print media." Sotheby's has more than me to fear.
Tonight Damien Hirst will attempt to sell 223 new works of art amid damaging revelations that he and his business partners were less than frank about the ?50 million sale of his diamondencrusted skull last year when they purchased a controlling stake in the object themselves, and that White Cube, the gallery of Hirst's London dealer, Jay Jopling, has ?100 million worth of unsold "Damiens" in its store. On top of that comes a fortnight of grim economic data from tumbling stock markets and bursting asset bubbles. Bloomberg even reported a fall in Sotheby's share price on Friday amounting to $188 million stating that analysts and dealers cited "investor unease" about the sale.
Hirst has always taken risks, but never have the stakes been so high. By 9pm tonight, the contemporary art world will have changed irrevocably, yet there are two starkly different possible outcomes.
In the first, the majority of lots in Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the name Hirst has given his auction, will sell for a total of ?80 million-?120 million, as Sotheby's hopes. They did, after all, sell Lullaby Spring last summer for ?9.6 million, briefly making Hirst the most expensive artist at auction. In this case, the growth of the contemporary art market will be proven to be continuing, immune to the economic rules which govern lesser mortals who aren't artists or billionaires.
There would be huge implications for art-dealers. This is the first time that an artist has offered a new exhibition of work directly at auction (even if the idea of artists sending new works to auction comes from the Chinese art markets).
If the gambit works, Hirst will break the link between artist and gallery, opening the way for a new era in which auction houses and celebrity artists dominate the art world, as gallerists have until now. …