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Hirst auction breaks sales record at Sotheby's

Posted 9/16/08 - A sale of pickled sharks, butterfly paintings and other pieces by provocative British artist Damien Hirst has raised $198 million, silencing his doubters and defying the global economic gloom.

Sotheby's auction house said the total for the two-day sale was a record for an auction of works by a single artist.

The turmoil engulfing global financial markets did nothing to dampen prices as more than 600 prospective buyers packed the showroom for each of the three auction sessions. Others around the world bid by phone.

"The Kingdom," a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde, sold for $17 million in the first session Monday evening. "The Golden Calf" - an embalmed calf with golden hooves and horns - fetched $18.5 million.

"Fragments of Paradise," a confection of stainless steel, glass and manufactured diamonds, sold for almost $9.4 million, five times its pre-sale estimate.

Two of Hirst's butterfly paintings were sold for charity, for a total of more than $2.9 million.

All prices include a buyer's premium.

Sotheby's said the total smashed the $20 million record for an auction of works of a single artist set in 1993 for 88 works by Pablo Picasso.

Hirst took a risk by offering more than 200 pieces of new work through Sotheby's rather than a gallery. He said it was a more democratic way to sell art - and it also spared him a gallery's hefty commission. But if buyers had stayed away, Hirst's global brand would have been tarnished.

The most successful of the so-called "Young British Artists" who came to prominence in the 1990s, Hirst is famous for eye-catching works redolent of death and decay - pickled animals, rotting cows' heads, diamond-encrusted skulls. He employs a large staff to help him make his works, and some critics had suggested his prolific output was devaluing the work.

There was little sign of that Monday.

Hirst, 43, said the results of the sale showed "the market is bigger than anyone knows."

"I love art, and this proves I'm not alone and the future looks great for everyone," he said.

The results are all the more startling given the fear spreading through international financial markets and the economic elite who are among modern art's major buyers. The sale came as global markets reeled from the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers, the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

"Banks fall over, art triumphs," former Royal Academy chief Norman Rosenthal told the Guardian newspaper.

Charles Dupplin, an art expert at specialist insurers Hiscox, said the sale was "another landmark and astounding day for the art market in a year that has seen many long-standing records demolished, despite the gloomy world economy."

But some remained unimpressed.

"Sometime in the future people will be laughing their heads off at all this," said Charles Thomson, one of a group of artists who call themselves the Stuckists and oppose much modern conceptual art. "Actually, quite a lot of people are right now. One of them is Damien Hirst, on his way to the bank."

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