Mar 22, 2024 - Economy

The backdating of Damien Hirst

"Myth Explored, explained and exploded" by Damien Hirst

"Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded," 1993, by Damien Hirst, exhibited at Gagosian London in March 2022. Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Artworks are like stock options: They become more valuable when they're backdated. That's what makes The Guardian's investigation into the dates on Damien Hirst sculptures so juicy.

Why it matters: As the Guardian's Jonathan Jones writes, the revelations of backdating "threaten to poison Hirst's whole artistic biography."

The big picture: As with many artists, Hirst created his most important and groundbreaking work in his 20s. Such works always sell for a premium.

  • In terms of critical acclaim, Hirst has spent the subsequent decades in what Jones calls "artistic decline."
  • In terms of sheer cash revenues, however, the unabashedly commercial Hirst was making orders of magnitude more money in the 2010s than in the 1990s, as I explained in a 2017 New Yorker piece.

Between the lines: In his pivot to running his operation like the for-profit business it is, Hirst seems to have played fast and loose with the reasonably solid art-world convention that the date on a work is the date it was made.

  • Instead, his company, Science Ltd, now claims that "Formaldehyde works are conceptual artworks and the date Damien Hirst assigns to them is the date of the conception of the work."
  • In other words: If Hirst thought about slicing a shark in three in 1993, that means said sculpture is a 1993 work, even if it was made in 2017. (No one outside the Hirst camp finds this claim remotely convincing.)

Zoom out: Artists are human and like money, and when they can profit by recreating their early work, they can end up doing just that.

  • After Alec Baldwin bought a 2010 Ross Bleckner painting that was sold as a 1996 work, he won a seven-figure settlement from Bleckner's gallerist, Mary Boone.
  • Giorgio de Chirico's Metaphysical paintings of the 1910s were so in demand that he kept on recreating them for the rest of his career, calling the newer works "verifalsi," or real fakes, and making them practically impossible to distinguish from the originals.

The bottom line: There are probably many artists who have quietly backdated new work to make it more valuable. Most of them, however, don't have disaffected former assistants willing to leak that information to the press.

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