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How Sotheby’s Transformed the Art Market (With the Help of Damien Hirst)

By Christian House

I t all began on a London bus. “It was 2003 and I was on a Number 94 which went from Shepherds Bush along Holland Park and up through Notting Hill,” recalls Oliver Barker, Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe. “I was looking out of the window and I could see clearly that Pharmacy had shut down. Things were being moved outside the restaurant. And I just had this epiphany. That would be a really fantastic auction.”

Damien Hirst, A pair of ampoule salt and pepper shakers, Sold for £1,920

Pharmacy – the restaurant and social hotspot styled as a dispensing chemist by Damien Hirst and PR maestro Matthew Freud – had been an iconic destination for London society at the turn of the millennium. Kate Moss and Alexander McQueen frequented its pill-lined bar. “It was the high table of Cool Britannia,” Barker notes.

The following year, Barker staged an auction of the restaurant’s fixtures, fittings, decorations and furniture – all created by Hirst – the first time there had been an entire sale of works consigned by a living artist. It was as if an entire aesthetic was being auctioned – in addition to Hirst’s sculptural works and stained-glass windows, there were menus, lights, banister brackets, salt and pepper shakers and egg cups. All with Hirst’s Pop-medicinal theme.

A set of 20 rolls of Silver Pharmacy wallpaper (lot 11): Sold for £15,600 (est: £2,000-3,000)

It caused a sensation: the auction more than doubled its pre-sale estimate, totalling £11.1 million. It created a new world auction record for Hirst and saw every single lot sold. Even a set of six ashtrays found a happy home – for an astounding £1,600. “Suddenly my restaurant venture seems to be a success,” Hirst remarked on the day.

But Pharmacy was just the beginning. The sale’s success had created a bond of trust between Hirst and Sotheby’s. “The greatest indication of the success of that relationship was that we did it again,” Barker says. Four years later Sotheby’s staged Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, a two-day sale of pieces created by Hirst especially for the auction, delivered directly from the artist’s studio to the saleroom. This was a landmark move in an arena that had always focussed on the secondary market. By that stage Hirst had become a global phenomenon. “The stakes had got even higher,” Barker explains. “The values had become even more important.”

Damien Hirst, Eight Over Eight, Sold for £728,750

In three sale sessions, some 223 new works were offered to a capacity crowd and lines of phone banks. They covered the full gamut of Hirst’s imagination – including his butterfly works, medicine cabinets, formaldehyde boxes, spin paintings and skulls. The sale totalled £111.6 million. It was, Barker observes: “The biggest transformation in the auction business over the past 60 years.”

All artworks © Damien Hirst and Science (UK) Ltd.

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