The Hirst 'record' that wasn't

February 9 2015

Image of The Hirst 'record' that wasn't

Picture: Christie's

Colin Gleadell of The Telegraph alerts us to an interesting Damien Hirst coming up for sale at Christie's on Wednesday (11th Feb), called Lullaby Winter. The pill cabinet was sold in New York on 16th May 2007 for $7.4m, but, says Gleadell, was never paid for. Having guaranteed the lot before the 2007 sale, Christie's were obliged to take ownership of the piece themselves. Now it is on offer with an estimate of £2.5m-£4m.

Will Christie's recoup their investment? Last time around, the piece was estimated at $2.5m-$3.5m, and the guarantee was probably at around the lower estimate. So if the piece sells at the lower estimate this time, Christie's are ok. I bet you it does sell - a failure would be too alarming for the value of everyone else's Hirsts. 

The current Christie's catalogue makes no mention of the 2007 sale, or the buyer's failure to pay. But of course, the 2007 'price' has remained on the Christie's sale database all these years, helping to bolster other Hirst works.

Can we judge what effect the apparent $7.4m 'sale' had on the Hirst market in 2007 and subsequently? At the time, $7.4m represented a new auction record for Hirst, more than doubling the previous record of $3m for a pickled sheep sold at Christie's in 2006* (according to a list of prices on the Blouin Art Sales Index).

Speaking to Bloomberg at the time, Sotheby's Oliver Barker said that the apparent high price fetched by Lullaby Winter made the owner of a comparable work, Lullaby Spring, keener to sell:

'The record prices for Damien are all for his sculptural works,' he said. The price Christie's got for Lullaby Winter made the owner of Lullaby Spring more willing to sell, according to Barker.

Lullaby Spring was estimated at £3m-£4m when it was sold on 21st June 2007, and fetched £9.65m - a figure that was duly hailed as 'a new auction record' for Hirst, indeed for any living artist. As far as we know, the buyer of Lullaby Spring duly paid up. But if Lullaby Winter doesn't do well on Wednesday, they may be wishing they hadn't...

Actually, if I was the owner of Lullaby Spring, I'd already be worried that Christie's are not more confident in marketing Lullaby Winter. Surely, with the current contemporary art boom showing no signs of flagging, Lullaby Spring should be on the block for more than £2.5m-£4m.

Inevitably, there's some good guff in the catalogue note for Lullaby Winter, which says, with unintended irony:

As with so much of the artist’s work, the pill cabinets are fundamentally about our sociological need to construct belief systems out of nothing, about our need to come to terms with the often-mysterious fabric of existence. Lullaby Winter addresses this need and the aesthetic allure of the pills is rendered useless in the face of their unknown medical purpose, as Hirst reminds, ‘we have to simply believe that somehow our ills will be cured.’

That's the contemporary art market in a phrase there folks - 'simply believe...'

* People from the future, I am not making this up.

Update - a reader writes:

I think Damien Hirst must spend most of his day giggling uncontrollably at his skill in fooling people endlessly…

Update II - I've done a little more digging on how the Hirst 'record' was reported in 2007. Here's The Guardian:

new records were also set by the British artist Damien Hirst whose rise to pre-eminence as one of the world's most profitable artists continued with the sale of Lullaby Winter for $7.4m. The work, a rainbow-like arrangement of pharmaceutical pills set in a frame against a metallic background, had been expected to sell for less than half that amount.

Here was the FT:

If a visitor to London’s vibrant cultural scene were seeking a metaphor to describe the crazed buoyancy of the contemporary art market, here it is. The past couple of weeks have seen further records tumble for contemporary artists at auction, including Hirst’s own, when “Lullaby Winter”, one of his medicine cabinet altars, sold for $7.4m at Christie’s New York. [...] Hirst, who has already amassed a personal fortune of £130m, according to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, is hotter, and richer, than ever.

Here was the New York Times:

Damien Hirst's prankish selections of "things" displayed in cases or dipped in glass tanks holding a formaldehyde solution made a spectacular progression, jumping from $3.37 million - given in May 2006 at Christie's New York for "Away from the flock, divided" - to $7.43 million paid this week for "Lullaby Winter," a title describing the parody of a medicine cabinet.

And here was The Art Newspaper looking at the wider Hirst price levels around that time:

Rumour has it that the Doig record was like a red rag to a bull for those in the Damien Hirst camp, while devotees of Lucian Freud thought that the senior painter was the rightful title-bearer. Since an auction record usually leads to a rise in prices for all the artist’s works, dealers and collectors (and a growing number of hybrid dealer-collectors) have a major stake in such accolades because they can have a serious impact on the value of their inventory.

Not surprisingly, last June at Christie’s in London (a few months after the Doig record was set), Freud’s Bruce Bernard, a connoisseur’s picture from 1992, knocked White Canoe off the top spot by selling for £7.9m ($15.7m). The next night at Sotheby’s in London, the sombre Freud was whacked off its pedestal by Hirst’s Lullaby Spring, 2002, which sold for a whopping £9.7m ($19.2m). Most importantly, Hirst grabbed the coveted worldwide title, which Johns had held (on and off) for 19 years.

Lullaby Spring is part of a seasonal series of four, but some 20 other large-scale pill cabinets are said to exist. Only the month before, its near-identical sibling Lullaby Winter, 2002, had sold for a mere $7.4m at Christie’s New York. Sometimes the consignor can add value; in the case of Lullaby Spring, New York lawyer Joel Mallin provided respectable, but not what one would describe as premium provenance. Some insiders pointed to the fact that Lullaby Spring’s little pills were more vibrantly coloured than Lullaby Winter’s, but the logic behind the $12m price gap lies elsewhere. Nobody understands better than an auction house that price appreciation of this magnitude is seldom intrinsic to the work.

Whereas Christie’s rarely puts all its marketing muscle behind a single work of art, choosing instead to promote a handful of lots on its front, back and inside catalogue covers, Sotheby’s marketing of contemporary works has tended to be doggedly single-minded. Much like their handling of Doig’s White Canoe, Lullaby Spring enjoyed a wrap-around cover. This time, however, their on-message communications predicted a new living artist auction record. In both cases, Sotheby’s had their reasons. With the Doig, they owned (or partially owned) six paintings by the artist, so it was imperative that this first work to hit the block should sell well. With Hirst, the logic was a little different. Since the Pharmacy sale in which Hirst made the unprecedented move of taking his own work to auction, Sotheby’s London had enjoyed a positive alliance with the artist as well as strong relationships with his primary dealers and loyal stockholders. The opportunity for a record was clear, if only they get could the right people interested.

Also worth noting is the Christie's press release for Wednesday's sale. It makes no mention of the non sale in 2007, but pushes instead the Sotheby's sale of Lullaby Spring for £9.65m, which of course was set immediately after the 'sale' of Lullaby Winter:

Damien Hirst’s iconic pill cabinet Lullaby Winter, 2002 is to be offered at Christie’s in February (estimate: £2.5-4million). Another from the series of four cabinets named after the four seasons, Lullaby Spring, sold at auction in 2007 for £9.65million, breaking the record for a work by a European living artist at the time of sale. Just as Monet painted the four seasons, Hirst captures the winter atmosphere with his assembly of thousands of beautifully hand-crafted pills. Precisely positioned on razor-sharp shelving and enshrined within a perfect, mirrored surgical steel cabinet, these pills number the amount a single human might expect to consume in a lifetime.

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