Damien Hirst: Bad Boy Makes Good

Thanks to an unprecedented auction, British artist Damien Hirst is about to have the biggest payday in art history

  • Photograph by Pal Hansen for TIME

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    The Color of Money
    Hirst never met his biological father. He was raised mostly by his mother, Mary Brennan, who lives next door to his home in Devon. A stepfather departed when he was 12. As a boy, Hirst liked to draw, and eventually he was accepted by Goldsmiths College at the University of London. It was as a second-year student that he did the thing that first put him on the map.

    "Freeze" was an exhibition of work by Hirst and 15 fellow students that he organized in 1988 in a rented warehouse in the London docklands. He persuaded figures of consequence in the British museum world to take a look, and over the next few years whipped up a storm of coverage from a British media that, in those days, rarely paid much attention to new art, except to stick out its tongue. "I grew up in a background of people who weren't into art," he recalls. "They'd say: 'If you can do a drawing that looks like me and you can put it in a pub and people think that's me, that's art. Not what you do.' So I was always fighting for art, trying to push things forward."

    When you ask Hirst about his early influences, it's not an artist he brings up first. It's Charles Saatchi, a former ad tycoon and collector who established a gallery in 1985 to show his own collection. The sheer size of the place made Hirst think big. "I had never seen a gallery of that scale," he says. "Britain was always small. Then Saatchi came and put things on a big f___ing American scale. So I just started making work like that. It didn't matter that I didn't know where to put it."

    By the early 1990s Saatchi was one of Hirst's biggest collectors and promoters. It was Saatchi who commissioned that pickled shark, which he sold 13 years later to American hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen for a reported $12 million. It was Saatchi who bundled Hirst together with other British artists he collected, like Sarah Lucas and Marc Quinn, to create the media phenomenon called Young British Artists. What they had in common other than age was work that was abrasive, unconventional and a little unappetizing — Lucas' first solo exhibition was called "Penis Nailed to a Board"; Quinn produced a self-portrait bust made from his own frozen blood. It was also calculating, the kind of work summed up as willing to shock, but sometimes it had less to do with shock than with the enduring British qualities of loathing and anger.

    Hirst was the de facto leader of the pack and a bad boy at the center of every party. He drank heavily and knew all about the business end of a cocaine straw. A turning point came when he met Frank Dunphy, his genial but very shrewd business manager and empire builder. Dunphy is a 70-year-old Irishman who once handled the books for acrobats, jugglers and "exotic" dancers. In the mid-'90s he agreed to help Hirst straighten out a tax problem. Hirst says Dunphy promised to make him money. "I said, 'You're an accountant — you mean save me money.' And he said, 'No, no, make you money.' "

    He meant it. In time, Dunphy would take all of the wayward boy's business affairs in hand, not least renegotiating Hirst's split with dealers. Dunphy says Hirst's galleries now accept an arrangement that gives the artist as much as 70% of the sale price, instead of the standard 50%. But even with that advantageous formula, an auction in which Hirst reaps almost all the profits, while merely covering some sundry costs, was too much to resist. He'll still work with dealers, says Dunphy. But "Damien's far enough up the greasy pole now to be his own man."

    The dealers Hirst will continue to work with are two of the most prominent in the business: the American Larry Gagosian (who has galleries in New York City, Los Angeles, London and Rome) and Jay Jopling, a longtime friend of Hirst's who owns London's White Cube gallery. When Sotheby's announced the Hirst sale, it immediately set off speculation that other artists — the ones with enough clout — would also bolt the gallery system. The two most obvious possibilities are the American Jeff Koons and the Japanese Takashi Murakami. Both have, just like Hirst, global name recognition and a squad of assistants turning out work. Both are represented by Gagosian. In the Sotheby's press release announcing the sale, Jopling and Gagosian gamely said they would go on working with Hirst. Gagosian even promised to be at the sale, "paddle in hand" — probably wishing he could spank Hirst with it.

    Within the art world, the announcement of Hirst's Sotheby's sale did not really come as a surprise. The last few years have seen a phenomenal increase in auction prices for contemporary art. Many of the buyers come from Russia, Asia and the Middle East, where a new class of billionaire collectors has emerged. It was none other than the royal family of Qatar that briefly made Hirst the most expensive living artist at auction last year by paying $19.2 million for Lullaby Spring , one of his medicine-cabinet pieces.

    Artists, however, don't ordinarily get a dime from auction sales of their work. The money goes to the sellers and the auction house. But where is the rule that an artist can't sell his own work at auction? And it was always likely that Hirst would be the first artist to do that. He has the production capacity to supply a big sale, the name recognition, and a relationship with Sotheby's that began four years ago with a London auction of just about everything that wasn't nailed to the floor at Pharmacy, a celebrity-magnet restaurant co-owned by Hirst that gradually lost its magnetism and closed. That sale brought a jaw-dropping $20 million for everything from artworks to Hirst-designed martini glasses. Then, in February, he worked with Sotheby's in New York to solicit 100 major artists, including Jasper Johns and Anish Kapoor, to donate work to a sale that raised $42 million for RED, a socially conscious business venture cofounded by his rockstar friend Bono.

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