Is India an outlet for Sotheby’s unsold art? (Comment)

August 31st, 2008 - 10:12 am ICT by IANS  

Did international auction house Sotheby’s bring famed contemporary artist Damien Hirst’s works to India because a “mountain” of unsold works lies in wait in London? Is Sotheby’s looking at India to sell hitherto unsold art?These are the questions being asked by art critics and collectors in India, but a declaration Friday by the Bloomberg publication announced that Damien Hirst’s London dealer White Cube has denied it has a “mountain” of unsold works before a Sotheby’s sale that previewed in the Hamptons and New Delhi two days ago.

White Cube, which has galleries in St. James’s and Hoxton, east London, said in an e-mailed statement that its stock level for Hirst was normal. The Art Newspaper said on Aug 23 that the dealer held more than 200 paintings and sculptures by Hirst, valued at more than 100 million pounds ($184.5 million), citing White Cube documents.

Throwing light on the truth of the matter, The Art Newspaper said 34 butterfly paintings, 35 spin paintings and six medicine cabinets, ranging in date from 2002 to 2008, were still available, priced at as much as 2.5 million pounds.

The 4.5 million pound and 4 million pound formaldehyde sculptures “Love’s Paradox” - featuring a cow split in half - and “Black Sheep” were among works left unsold from Hirst’s June-July 2007 exhibition “Beyond Belief”, the newspaper said.

Sotheby’s on the other hand said its “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” sale in London on Sep 15-16 may raise 65 million pounds.

But deeper intentions reflect that Hirst’s brand of democracy is a tad peculiar and more of a diatribe in diabolism. Some people in London feel that the Sotheby’s auction is payback time for Hirst. It seems the prices that the 43-year-old artist wants are sky high and collectors and buyers no more want to pay such hyped prices for such small works.

The dismay of the buyers and collectors at Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi was seen when a senior seasoned artist who wished to be anonymous said: “This is all marketing hype. There’s nothing in this show.”

Of course inside sources claim that Sotheby’s know that Hirst’s thirst knows its own boundaries and in London those boundaries have been met. So is Hirst then wanting to tell the art market that he’s staking his own claim to fame under the auction banner?

Sotheby’s on the other hand have pulled out all the stops. While Tyeb Mehta’s magnificent “Falling Bird” hung outside the Ballroom at Oberoi like a step child, it was the small insignificant Hirsts that hung like punctuations in a huge hallway that showed up their plastic pretentiousness in poor light.

Sotheby’s of course have gone overboard with with the two-day, hefty three-catalogue event that includes a menagerie of Hirst’s trademark animal-in-formaldehyde pieces, including a tiger shark and a zebra with estimates of at least 2 million pounds.

A calf with 18-carat gold horns is valued at up to 12 million pounds, said Sotheby’s. The auction will also include 16 spot paintings, 20 spin canvases, eight spin “cloths” and 73 paintings with butterflies.

Interestingly, while the the auction house said its sale was of “a whole new body of work” that had not been previously offered by White Cube or other dealers - the spots, the butterflies, the “Angel” are all works of the old mould just rehashed in smaller sizes.

According to Bloomberg, some art dealers have suggested that Hirst’s use of more than 100 studio assistants created issues of over-production. Hirst, Britain’s richest artist, released a video interview on Sotheby’s web site this month in which he said he is to stop making the spin and butterfly paintings that have been among his top-selling works.

Questions about Sotheby’s and Hirst’s new affair come rankling. Will revelations about unsold works affect the auction? Has London reached a saturation point for Hirst? Are Hirst and Sotheby’s looking for new collectors in the East because of this saturation?

Hirst’s brusque and hurried recorded message of “Hi everyone, I am too busy to come to India” smacked of indolence and arrogance more than a friendly chatter.

According to the Art Newspaper, in addition to the 100 million pounds of unsold stock, White Cube has also yet to find a buyer for Hirst’s diamond-encrusted platinum skull, “For the Love of God”.

First shown on June 3, 2007, the skull was priced at 50 million pounds. In August 2007 White Cube said the skull, studded with 8,601 diamonds, had been acquired by an investment group that included Hirst himself and Jopling with the intention to “resell the sculpture at some stage in the future”.

Meanwhile, ignorant media in India have waxed eloquent over Hirst, little knowing that it’s just hype and hubris.

Unending questions come up: Is Hirst trying to trick the art world? No wonder art critic Charlie Finch called him a “trick pony”. Is Sotheby’s hoping to sell Hirst in India’s backyard? Is India Sotheby’s “unsold outlet”? Careful Indian buyers and collectors think “there’s more than the butterfly in that work”!

Indeed Indian collectors are much more than just the fly on the wall! And by all standards we are artistically literate.

(Uma Nair is a noted art critic. She can be contacted at umanair@gmail.com)

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