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Sept. 16, 2008 

Despite the grim predictions of many art-market kvetchers and Cassandras, the two-day auction of 223 lots of artwork by Damien Hirst at Sotheby’s London on Sept. 15-16, 2008, "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever," was a smashing success. All but five of the lots sold for a total of £111,464,800 ($200,752,179), edging above the presale high estimate of £98.6 million. "The market is bigger than anyone knows," said Hirst himself after the sale (via press release). "I love art and this proves I’m not alone and the future looks great for everyone!" The artist reportedly followed the evening sale electronically while playing snooker.

Indeed, the auction was a clear testament to the new globalism of the art market. Sotheby’s noted that 35 percent of the buyers in the evening sale were new to its contemporary art department, and 18 percent were new to Sotheby’s altogether. Almost 75 percent of the lots sold for more than the high estimate, and the average sold lot price was £1.3 million. And needless to say, the dramatic collapse of the investment banking industry across the Atlantic in New York City had no visible effect on the sale.

One of the bought-in lots in the evening sale was Devil Worshiper, a five-foot-tall pentagram -- an upside-down five-pointed star -- covered in dead flies and estimated at £200,000-£300,000, which prompted auction observers to note that the devil was clearly busy in New York with Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG. But not that busy. According to Sotheby’s, it and the other bought-in lot were sold privately before the sale closed.

Top lots included The Golden Calf, the famous pickled calf with 18-carat gold horns in a vitrine on a Carrera marble base, which sold for £10,345,250 ($18,661,796), a new auction record for the artist, and The Kingdom, the tiger shark in a black steel vitrine, which went for £5,193,250 ($9,368,104). Buyers for both lots were European collectors, Sotheby’s said.

A 12 x 16 in. canvas covered with ashtray contents -- cigarette butts, mostly -- sold for £121,250 ($222,722), well in excess of the presale high estimate of £40,000.

The nature of Hirst’s deal with Sotheby’s remains a closely guarded secret. The artist certainly didn’t have to pay part of his proceeds to the auction house as a seller’s commission, and may have even received a portion of the buyer’s premium, the extra fee paid in addition to the hammer price by the lucky winners (typically 25 percent of the first £25,000, 20 percent of anything between £25,000 and £500,000, and 12 percent on the rest).

In her report in the New York Times, auction reporter Carol Vogel suggested that Sotheby’s may have offered Hirst’s art dealers a break on the premium to induce them to bid (Jay Jopling of the London gallery White Cube won one work in the evening sale, Vogel said). Art-market observers note that in addition to any profits Sotheby’s may have made from the sale -- and it has been an expensive one to promote -- the auction has two additional benefits for the firm: it solidifies Sotheby’s relationship with Hirst, who has become a major collector (he reportedly purchased a Francis Bacon self-portrait for $23.2 million and a Jeff Koons sculpture for £3.2 million earlier this year -- both at Sotheby’s); and it adds to Sotheby’s market share, which has been trailing that of arch-rival Christie’s for about five years.

In any case, Sotheby’s certainly gets points for thinking big, as does Hirst. Two years ago, the artist galvanized the contemporary art scene with a diamond-covered human skull priced at $100 million. This year it was the $200-million auction of nothing but his own works. One can only wonder -- what’s next?

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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