I got it wrong. Very wrong. More wrong, perhaps, than anyone has ever got anything wrong in the history of art, or at least the history of art market reportingby Ben Lewis / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
On the eve of “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” Damien Hirst’s two-day Sotheby’s auction in mid-September, I predicted in the Evening Standard that the sale would tank. Instead, it made almost £112m, way more than the £65m estimate and a world record for an artist. Many lots soared above their estimates, a couple going for three times the low figure. Fragments of Paradise, a huge cabinet lined with neat rows of industrially produced diamonds, fetched £5.2m, against an estimate of £1m-£1.5m. The star lot was The Golden Calf, a bull in a large gold-plated formaldehyde fish tank-a symbol of the worship of a false god. It went for £10m, bang in the middle of the range. The Kingdom-yet another Hirst shark-went for £9.6m, well above the £4m-£6m estimate. This was an incredible, gravity-defying feat. As the sale started, one of America’s largest investment banks went bankrupt, and a giant insurance company, AIG, was saved only by nationalisation just as the auction ended. The shares of even solid, boring banks were crashing in London and New York. The art market was sending a confusing message. Could it really be that a dead bull floating in a tank was a safer home for your cash than a deposit at the Halifax?
I watched my predictions being shredded from the outside. Sotheby’s had taken a dislike to my cynicism about the top end of the contemporary art market; they banned me from attending the auction as a journalist, citing an Evening Standard article I wrote almost a year ago, called “Who put the ‘con’ in contemporary art?” I was left to prowl the pavements and the public screening rooms on the lower floors of the auction house, trying to work out how I had got it so wrong. Had the art world taken leave of its senses? My fellow critics all had a thought of the day for me. “You shouldn’t speak too soon,” said Carol Vogel, who writes about art for the New York Times. “Don’t worry Ben, I know sod all about the art market as well,” said Bloomberg’s contemporary art reporter Scott Reyburn, with great modesty-two days earlier he had advised me that the sale would be a hit.