Luxury brand manager
Hirst’s work is expensive because a moneyed group of people has agreed that it should be. A striking number of his buyers are luxury goods companies and their leaders whose success depends on similar elite approbation.
Their interest in the artist is evident at his exhibition. The Prada collection and the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, the planned Frank Gehry-designed gallery in Paris, both lent their Hirsts to the Tate. François Pinault, the French luxury goods magnate, is a keen Hirst collector.
Luxury brands need loving care. Fakes and counterfeits can undermine them. Maintaining the aura requires constant vigilance.
Some luxury watchmakers and jewelers attempt to put their offerings’ status beyond doubt by smothering them in diamonds. Hirst’s “For the Love of God”, a platinum cast of an 18th-century skull, on display in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, is covered with 8,601 diamonds, including a large one in the center of its forehead.
The use of diamonds to ensure luxury goods are seen as such is wonderfully self-referential. Diamonds, too, are valuable because those who own and covet them have an interest in considering them valuable, a trick that is easier to maintain when they are kept relatively scarce, as the great De Beers men Cecil Rhodes and Harry Oppenheimer understood.
Cutting diamonds is a highly developed skill. So is making luxury watches. Craft underlies most luxury brands. Some might allege that is not true of Hirst’s work. More important, luxury brands take themselves seriously. It is not clear that Hirst does. One of his circular colour works carries this description on the Tate wall: “Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art, over-simplistic, throw away, kids’ stuff, lacking in integrity?.?.?.?” Perhaps Hirst suspects the ping-pong ball will not stay in the air forever. This leads us to his fourth business.
In September 2008 Hirst became the first important artist to dispense with dealers or galleries and sell his work in a Sotheby’s auction. Buyers spent £111m just as Lehman Brothers went bust. Since then, his prices have not only fallen; they have underperformed the contemporary art market, according to data from Art Market Research.
There may be better artists, but there are not many traders who have so exquisitely called the top of the market.