The Spine

Hirst The Huckster

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John Kenneth Galbraith was amused by folly. Even by follies that caused some pain. But he wasn't at all a mean man. Which is one reason why he examined follies retrospectively, perhaps to curb mankind's instinct for folly.

In 1993, J.K.G. published a book called A History of Financial Euphoria. One of his chapters dealt with the Dutch black tulip mania during the 1630's, an era in Holland which Simon Schama saw as defined by its "embarrassment of riches." I don't know whether any of the financial types painted by Rembrandt or Frans Hals invested in tulips. But many did, some paying up to the equivalent of $50,000 per stem.

And then the tulip mania went bust.

I thought that today would mark another bust of another mania. No, I don't mean the stock market. That's already happening, and it brings me no joy.

What I thought was that the hyped-up prices of Damien Hirst's decaying carcasses in formaldehyde or the indistinguishable paintings of indistinguishable dots would simply plummet. Well, plummet it did not. In London today, Sotheby's banged down the hammer for a total of $127 million for half of the lots. The rest will be sold tomorrow or whenever. But the high end of the estimate for both sales was only $112 million. Only!  

If you want an evocative narrative -- okay, it's actually repulsive -- read Carol Vogel's report in the Times. No, I don't mean that Vogel's piece was repulsive. It's the facts that are disgusting.

Hirst sold so well despite what I though was a desolating article about Hirst in the latest issue of The Art Newspaper. You see, Hirst doesn't really make his own stuff.  It's mostly done by assistants, dozens of them. So please don't come up with your smart-aleck comparisons to Rubens's studio. By the way, the big success of the first Sotheby's came in the face of the paper's report that there are dozens and dozens of work languishing in one of his dealer's gallery...languishing and unsold.  

People alive today will live to see the price of a Hirst come down to the price of a dozen tulips. Tulips, mind you. Not roses.

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