When the owner of the famed Colombe dOr restaurant in St. Paul De Vence asked Pablo Picasso to sign and make a small doodle on the check as compensation for an extravagant dinner, the maestro curtly replied "My dear man, I want to pay the bill, not buy the restaurant!"
But if Picasso had attended the recent Sothebys auction of 168 works -- paintings, sculptures, furniture, objects and ephemera -- designed by the entrepreneurial bad boy of Brit Art Damien Hirst for the now defunct Pharmacy restaurant, the Midas-like Spaniard might have reconsidered his hasty retort.
The first exclusive sale by a living artist in the history of Sothebys auctions, the Pharmacy sale, held on Monday, October 18, at New Bond Street, was estimated to clear 3 million pounds.
But by the time the final hammer came down, the sale had racked up an astonishing £11,132,180 ($20,315,248).
So how did Sothebys smooth-as-silk auctioneer Oliver Barker feel as the last lot was cast? "I was shell-shocked."
Although promoted by a superb catalogue with a cover designed by Hirst (already a collectors item), the sale was preceded with a fair amount of skepticism regarding the artists reputation for quality and market status.
ArtTactics chief analyst Anders Petersons research report on Hirst, published shortly before the Pharmacy auction, concluded that Hirsts works are "overvalued" and the risk rating "high." Peterson added, "ArtTactic feels the overall Hirst market has been overbought, mainly fuelled by indiscriminate life-style and speculative buying with little thought for what constitutes quality."
The eminent Australian art critic Robert Hughes leveled a far harsher verdict, claiming the Brit art scene is a world "swollen with currency" and the "vanity of inflated reputation."
But such cynicism didnt stop over five hundred bidders jamming the aisles while thirty-five phones took absentee bids in the electrified atmosphere of the room. Furiously gesticulating, bidders fought for Barkers attention shouting "Bidding!" and "Here!"
All lots sold, some for 20-30 times their estimate.
Hirsts Midas touch became apparent from lot 1, when a bidder paid £4,800 ($8,772.95) for a pair of Martini glasses estimated at £50-70. (all quotes include buyers premium).
Lot 2, a complete set of six Pharmacy injection-molded plastic ashtrays estimated at £100 150 sold for £1,920 ($3,510).
A new public sales records for Hirsts work was achieved when Haunch of Venison director Harry Blain, bidding against the head of Sothebys Worldwide Contemporary department Tobias Meyer on the phone, paid a record £1,100,000 ($2,012,812) for lot 56 The Fragile Truth, one of a pair of six-vitrine medicine cabinets that once decorated the Pharmacys street level bar.
Purchased for a private client, it broke Hirsts previously established sales record dating from November 2003, when Something Solid Beneath the Surface, cabinet of varied animal skeletons, sold for $1.2 million at Phillips,de Pury & Co. in New York.
"It was an opportunity to buy a very important work by a major artist," said Blain after the auction.
Consolation was soon to come as Meyer shelled out £1,069,600 ($1,955,561) for lot 113, The Sleep of Reason, an eight-windowed medicine shelf chocked with somatic drugs.
London dealer Anne Faggionato paid £1,200 ($2,195) for lot 3, seven Pharmacy candle-holders, and £12,000 ($21,950) for lot 10, a set of six Jasper Morrison Pharmacy chairs.
London dealer Timothy Taylor paid £364,000 ($665,357) for lot 27, Full of Love, a canvas of mummified butterflies trapped in glossy red enamel.
Alberto Mugrabi picked up several major works including lot 155, Overflowing with Love, an emerald green butterfly painting, for £330,400 ($603,997) and Da Silvanos, a mid-sized medicine cabinet for which he shelled out £184,000 ($336,400).
The genesis of the Pharmacy sale must be credited to Sothebys contemporary expert, Oliver Barker. "I was on the bus and, totally by chance, I spotted the fittings being removed for storage as I passed the restaurant. And it immediately struck me that this would make an incredible sale."
Barker quickly contacted Hirsts accountant and business manager Frank Dunphy, but the reception to the idea of a Pharmacy auction at Sothebys was lukewarm. It wasnt until the recent fire at the Momart warehouse, in which Hirst lost 12 major works, that the artist relented to the sale.
Founded in January 1998 by Hirst, PR guru Matthew Freud, the Groucho clubs Liam Carson and property developers Nick Leslau and Nigel Wray, the Pharmacy was once an ultra-chic fixture in Londons Notting Hill, the type of place where weekend binges started with "Cough Syrup" cocktails.
It quickly became a celebrity magnet, attracting the likes of Hugh Grant, Madonna, Kate Moss, Kylie Minogue, Helen Fielding and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler wrote "a prescription for a very nice time" when it opened.
Like so many meteoric restaurant rises, however, the Pharmacy burned brightly but briefly. A year after it opened, there was talk of nationwide franchising. As the years passed by, so did the glitterati, and the fledgling restaurant was forced to close in September 2003.
"It was a sad day.like loosing a friend" said Hirst.
Saddened as he might have been, Hirst was prescient enough to purchase his artworks and relics back from the Pharmacy receivers for an alleged £5,000 -- not a bad investment when you consider he grossed a purported £9,680,000 ($17,690,975) from the sale.
Hirst wasnt in attendance for his moment of glory at Sothebys, but when he was reached by phone and told the final sum he said, "Im delighted suddenly my venture is a success".
Although a grand success for Hirst, the Pharmacy sale may toll a bell for the art market. As a publicly traded company, Sothebys is obliged to maximize profits for its shareholders. When Al Taubman bought the company in 1983, his vision was break down what he identified as "threshold resistance". By making auctions more accessible to collectors, Taubman intended to cut out the middleman -- namely galleries and dealers -- and market direct to collectors to maximize profits.
Could the Pharmacy sale be construed as the initial rumblings of this new paradigm, one in which auction houses slowly replace the very hand that once fed them?
JOE LA PLACA is Artnets London representative. Contact .