Damien Hirst Multiples: Is it Time to Think Twice?
Damien Hirst is an iconic artist who has left an indelible mark on contemporary British art. Provocative and prolific, with astonishing multimillion yearly auction records, Hirst is on many collectors’ minds, wish lists, and walls.
His continued relevance in 2023 was marked by several appearances: at fairs, as the highlight of the Gagosian booth at Frieze; and through expository takeovers at Phillips’ Berkeley Square townhouse and Gagosian’s Britannia Street. You can learn more about Damien Hirst, the YBA (Young British Artists) trailblazer.
Hirst is an artist who carries a hefty price tag for original works and commands long waitlists. Because of this, the artist’s releases of editioned artworks have found their way into thousands of collections all over the world due to their relatively more accessible price points. Currently, his latest series, alluringly named the ‘Secrets’, based on the artworks shown at Frieze are available to buy in the primary market.
From an investment standpoint, Hirst multiples are considered blue chip additions.
But how have they performed over time? Does it matter which work or series you buy?
As it turns out, not all Hirst are created equal.
In a series of analyses conducted by our art specialist team, we dive into the world of Hirst multiples, starting with the February 2022 release of the “Empresses,” in time for their second anniversary on the market.
This series combines Hirst’s archetypal motif of kaleidoscopic arrangements of fiery red butterflies with a strong narrative around female empowerment and timeless themes of love, war, power, joy, and anger encapsulated in a series of five works aptly named after five influential female rulers. Released for a limited period of time priced at $3,500 (or about £2,800 at the time), the ultimate edition size of each work was determined by the number of purchase orders made, and the final edition ranges across the works from 2,814 to 3,315, with a total of 15,333 Empresses sold.
Similar to other Hirst multiples, and despite ‘No Resale’ agreements, the Empresses were quick to appear at auction, with first lots appearing within a mere 2 months of the release as we see in Table 1. In about two years on the market, the Empresses have been showing up regularly at auction, yet the sell-through rate is poor, with less than 40% of lots successfully hammering, suggesting a muted market interest. Indeed, within the last six months, all the Empresses hit a nadir, selling at a loss compared with the purchase price, and have scarcely shown up since (understandably).
It goes to show that art can go up and down in value, even for an artist as heralded as Damien Hirst. In Chart 2, we have plotted the performance of each Empress at auction over time, along with a trendline that indicates the price trend as determined at auction.1 Across the board, prices are trending downwards.
Does it mean that having bought an Empress is a “bad” buy?2 Well, it depends on how you read the data. On one hand, you could infer that it’s a buyer’s market for the Empresses, so perhaps it is time to get your hands on an iconic Hirst that combines a strong narrative with the archetypal butterflies for a good value. Or you may read it as a doom and gloom for these female rulers.3 Before you make up your mind on this chart alone, let’s dive deeper.
We assess performance across two outcomes: the private sale return which considers the final price of the lot, including premium and fees, to be the guiding market value at the time, as such add-on fees are (or should be) priced-in by bidders at auction. This is the kind of return you could achieve when selling privately through Artscapy for just 10% commission on the selling side and zero for the buyer. In contrast, there is the auction return which is the return the seller can expect net of selling fees, yielding not only much lower returns but at increased price uncertainty compared with Artscapy.4
So now, let’s assess how the Empresses have fared so far with the benefit of hindsight. The story changes. Significantly.
As we see in Chart 3 where we look at the peak selling prices, we see that Theodora stands out as a clear winner. With an annualised private return close to 3x her purchase price and over 140% in absolute private yield over the holding period, Theodora, the most popular of the Empresses, held her weight when it came to price performance over time. Wu Zeitan, thanks to her short holding period - she was flipped at her peak after seven months following the release - returned a solid annualised return of close to 2x.5 Taytu Betul, the least popular of the Empresses as judged by the smallest edition size - on the other hand meaning she’s in the shortest supply - performed worst so far. A September 2023 auction saw Taytu Betul hammering at a mere £1,100, less than half the original price.
So what are the takeaways? The data speaks - Theodora is the clear winner, and selling privately would yield the strongest return.
Here are our other thoughts on the matter:
- All Hirst are not created equal - choice matters
- Price trajectories vary and having the right information on hand when considering whether to buy, sell, or hold is crucial (and how you sell a work matters)
- Oversupply can lead to market fatigue and difficulty selling, even for one of the most famous artists alive such as Damien Hirst
So what does it mean for the new ‘Secrets’ release? Well, we’ll let you be the judge of that, but following the data and critics reviews, such as this one by the Guardian, it might be the time to think twice.
On the other hand, it is a good buyer’s market for those looking to add one of the previous editions with a solid track record of desirability.
Should you be interested in buying or selling a Damien Hirst artwork, whether it is an Empress or not, Artscapy can support you in the process. If you own a Damien Hirst artwork and are looking for a professional valuation, we’ve got you covered as well.
Stay tuned for more analysis on your favourite artists coming soon.
Disclaimer: This article shall only be read as objective data analysis, and does not in any shape or form constitute financial, investment, tax, or legal advice. The analysis and any inferences that are drawn from the data are made and presented without reference to any particular individual’s investment goals or financial situation. You are encouraged to consult with tax, legal, and financial professionals before investing in art. Past performance is not an indicator of future results. Capital at risk. Full disclosures and terms and conditions are available on our website.
1. The graph plots the hammer price over time. Removing outlier results strengthens the model fit further, as indicated by the trendlines’ R-squared metrics. An R-squared around or above 0.7 is generally considered to be indicative of high confidence, while 0.4 and below would be considered a poor fit.
2. The following commentary may only be read as objective data analysis, and does not in any shape or form constitute financial, investment, tax, or legal advice. Please read the extended disclaimer at the end of the article.
3. It is important to note that this price trajectory analysis is based exclusively on public auction results and does not capture interest or demand from the private markets.
4. The private sale return is calculated as the hammer price in addition to an average 25% buyer’s premium, which is the typical margin an auction house will add on to the winning bid (buyer’s premium may even rise as high as 30%+). This margin is not returned to the seller, yet is priced in by the market when bids are placed, hence serving as an indication of the value placed by the market at the time. The auction return is calculated as the hammer price subtracting 10% which accounts for the typical seller fee charged by auction houses (it often reaches 15%). In contrast, Artscapy charges a single selling fee as low as 10% to subscribing members, or 15% for free members, thereby returning a much higher overall yield and eliminating price uncertainty.
5. We assume the peak sale was done by the first buyer of the work at the release and held without further costs until the sale.