Hirst's London art sale defies economic blues

LONDON Tue Sep 16, 2008 1:46pm EDT

A visitor looks at ''The Golden Calf'' by artist Damien Hirst at Sotheby's in London in this September 8, 2008 file photograph. Hirst's bull in a tank of formaldehyde with its head crowned by a gold disc sold for 10.35 million pounds ($18.6 million) on September 15, 2008, a record a auction for one of the contemporary art world's stars, Sotheby's said. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett/Files

A visitor looks at ''The Golden Calf'' by artist Damien Hirst at Sotheby's in London in this September 8, 2008 file photograph. Hirst's bull in a tank of formaldehyde with its head crowned by a gold disc sold for 10.35 million pounds ($18.6 million) on September 15, 2008, a record a auction for one of the contemporary art world's stars, Sotheby's said.

Credit: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett/Files

LONDON (Reuters) - Multi-millionaire artist Damien Hirst wildly exceeded expectations on Tuesday with a record-breaking sale of 218 items for 111 million pounds ($198 million), underscoring the resilience of the high-end art market.

A further two items were sold privately on Monday and three remained unsold on Tuesday after the unprecedented sale that bypassed the traditional dealer network and instead went direct to the auction rooms of Sotheby's in London.

"It is iconic; inherently British," said one bidder at the Sotheby's auction who asked to remain anonymous. "His work challenges people, and visually it is stunning."

Despite a global economic downturn, the auction put paid to fears Hirst's mammoth clear-out sale could flood the art market and hit prices. After taking 70.55 million pounds on Monday night, a morning and an afternoon sale on Tuesday brought in a further 41 million pounds.

Auction houses have been appealing to "recession-proof" buyers in the Middle East and Russia, where record oil prices have boosted already massive fortunes, along with the super-rich in emerging economies such as India.

By auctioning his work, Hirst can expect a far greater share of the money raised.

The two-day sale set a record for an auction dedicated to one artist. Sotheby's said it was 10 times the previous record set in 1993 for 88 works by Picasso.

The low-end estimate for the two-day sale by the artist, who is believed to be a dollar billionaire and is best known for his diced and pickled quadrupeds and, most recently, a 100 million dollar diamond-encrusted skull, was 65 million pounds.

Hirst's The Dream, a horse designed to look like a unicorn preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, sold for 2.05 million pounds, and follows on from the 10.35 million pounds paid for The Golden Calf on Monday.

Whilst the amount of money changing hands was nowhere near the levels of Monday's auction of 54 new works, many items sold for well above their high-end guide price, and only a handful were left on the shelf.

"Reincarnated" sold for 1.4 million pounds, double its estimate, and "Moments of Madness", went for nearly three times its guide price. But the crowds at Sotheby's auction house saw nothing strange about the sums being bid.

"Damien is so prolific, and the hype around him breeds more hype," said another bidder who also declined to be identified. "I think almost the fact that he can produce this work so fast, and on such a scale makes them valuable."

Others were drawn to the London auction house to observe the spectacle, more than to buy.

"Have they got the appeal of an old master, a Cezanne, say?" said one art enthusiast. "I don't see it, but his work is just a different way of looking at art. The price that they're going for interests me more than the art."

But the thirst for Hirst, 43, from Bristol in south west England, was not to everyone's taste.

"The art world has gone stark raving bonkers. It is akin to a fever, a plague people have caught. It won't last forever," Charles Thomson, co-founder of the anti-modern art Stuckist movement, told Reuters.

Proving the international draw of his works, five of the top nine items in Monday's auction went to European private collectors. The others preferred to remain anonymous.

(Editing by Caroline Drees)

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