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Damien Hirst / Jeff Koons – Artists and managers [09/23/2008]

The two most well-known and expensive contemporary artists alive today have other talents in common. They both enjoy exceptionally high media profiles, both elicit controversy, both set their respective auction records in 2008… and both know how to communicate. They also both seem to be "financially aware". September 2008 sees both on centre stage with just five days between the two. The American Jeff Koons, the most expensive living artist at auction today, is currently rubbing shoulders with French royal history having inaugurated his exhibition at the Palace of Versailles (10/09/2008 to 14/12/2008) while the English artist Damien Hirst has caused a mini sensation by selling directly through Sotheby’s…

The subprime crisis, banks on the verge of bankruptcy, Wall Street in the dumps… nothing seems to have bothered the collectors and dealers who participated in the round of highly publicised auction sales this month. On 15 and 16 Sotheby’s London played the role of promoting Damien HIRST's work normally attributed to the prestigious galleries White Cube (London) and Gagosian (New York) by dedicating 2 entire sales sessions to his productions. Short-circuiting his traditional gallery network, Hirst has managed to write a new page in the history of art auctions by demonstrating that the market is capable of digesting pieces that are fresh off the production line, with no other pedigree than Hirst's star-studded signature … and notwithstanding an altogether alarming economic context. Given the context, Hirst exposed himself to a significant risk of market "disinterest". However, the gamble paid off: Sotheby’s generated a total revenue of £70.5m (over $127m) on 15 September and £40.9m the day after, making a fortune for Hirst. By becoming his own manager, the artist has found the process the most profitable way of selling his works.

According to Sotheby’s, the eleven days of pre-sale exhibition drew in some 21,000 visitors. The big sale on 15 September – conducted very much as a show – attracted an eager crowd. Hands were raised at this pagan event where The Golden calf was indeed worshipped… a piece carrying that name generated Hirst's latest auction record when it was hammered down at £9.2 million. More ostentatious than his other installations, the sale of this golden-horned calf in a formaldehyde aquarium set on a marble pedestal with a golden disk above its head had a substantially positive effect on Hirst's price index. His previous auction record generated by Lullaby Spring was £8.6m (June 2007, again, at Sotheby’s).

Like Hirst, Jeff KOONS manages his artistic enterprise with considerable savoir faire! Both employ a hundred assistants, both are supported by heavyweights like the Gagosian Gallery and both reap multi-million-dollar auction results. Jeff Koons' current auction record stands at £11.5m ($22,947,100), generated by his Balloon Flower (Magenta) when it sold at Christie’s in London on 30 June last. But that is not all. Both artists have a strong penchant for independence and both have experience of the art market dating back to the 1980s: when Hirst was a young student in 1988 he set himself up as a champion of self-promotion by orchestrating the Freeze exhibition. He was immediately spotted by the advertising mogul, art collector and dealer Charles Saatchi who subsequently launched the Young Bristish Artists in 1997. At the same epoch the somewhat older Jeff Koons was a Wall Street trader. Having launched himself as an artist, he also enjoyed the support of a high-flying sponsor: François Pinault.

Today both artists are so famous that the roles appear to have been reversed: Koons is called in to "dust off" the cultural heritage of Versailles… and a deal is struck with Hirst that has the effect of revitalising the "secondary market".


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