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Damien Hirst’s Natural History Series: Will it Pass the Test of Time?

by Liz Holderman (01/22/13).

Damien Hirst’s 1991 contemporary art piece, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” reportedly sold for over $8,000,000 in a 2004 private sale.

After a recent WorthPoint article about collecting deteriorating pieces of royal wedding cakes, including a 172-year-old morsel from Queen Victoria’s ceremony, I wondered about other unusual collections. Damien Hirst immediately came to mind, especially since his new studio factory has been in the news this past year.

Britain’s Hirst (born in 1965) is one of the world’s wealthiest artists, so his work is obviously highly-desired. He has become famous partly for creating a “Natural History” series of contemporary art in which dead animals are preserved in formaldehyde. Hirst began the series in 1991 and the dozens of resulting sculptures are now displayed in museums and private collections all over the globe. A 14-foot shark reportedly sold for at least $8 million in 2004. And a prominent London restaurant recently acquired a Hirst formaldehyde rooster and cow to hang in their dining area.

Most of the sculptures are fairly large (with the exception of a piece featuring a guppy he made especially for the Miniature Museum in the Netherlands). So I wondered: How does a collector display such a work of art? Does it slosh around when it’s moved? What if it gets cloudy or starts to leak after 20 years? And what about collectors who don’t have room or can’t afford millions of dollars for a Hirst masterpiece? So, I checked out the Worthopedia to see what similar (but alternative) items have sold for in the past.

It was fairly easy to find nine-inch formaldehyde jars with baby sharks inside. Sitting upright on Styrofoam bases, with a distinctive Floridian gift shop look, they sold for surprisingly low values of $10 to $25. Beyond that, formaldehyde samples of hairless mice, fetal pigs, tapeworms, small armadillos, frogs and other such banal animals could sell for as much as $150, depending on their age and presentation. But these items, although apparently collectible to someone, were originally created as souvenirs or for classroom instruction, not as works of art. They clearly didn’t have the panache of a piece produced by a famous artisan.

The Worthopedia and other auction data bases also revealed several examples of Hirst’s lesser-known (and somewhat less controversial) Natural History sculptures. Instead of featuring large animals, most of these were in three-foot displays with multiple smaller specimens creatively grouped together. In fact, many of them seemed to be collections of science jars (albeit without the Styrofoam). But these works still sold in an astonishing range of $250,000 to $550,000 (plus buyer’s premiums).

Hirst’s other art sells for high prices, too. 

Hirst’s 2012 sculpture, “Cock and Bull” is displayed in the Tramshed restaurant in London. Would it affect your appetite?

He is well-known for a variety of contemporary series, many of which were represented at a special exhibition at the Tate Modern in London last summer. That show featured a platinum skull encrusted with more than 8,000 diamonds (said to be worth almost $80 million). Focusing on collectors with deep pockets, the museum store offered commemorative skulls (made of painted plastic) for $58,000 each.

But Hirst has made his biggest splash with formaldehyde. He seems to be one of the first to tackle the difficult task of embalming animals with feathers and fur, but he also relies on an intense visual impact. Why are large bovines standing in formaldehyde considered to be more fearful and thought-provoking than the same examples simply dried and stuffed by a taxidermist? Is it only the unexpected medium? Or is there something more?

In today’s market, Hirst’s conceptual work is sometimes treated like a luxury item rather than a masterful piece of art. It is coveted because of the novelty and the notoriety of the artist. But the novelty may wear off, as his Natural History art will soon be mass-produced inside a guarded, 97,000 square foot factory filled with vats of formaldehyde tanks, forklifts, storage freezers, trollies and a staff of workers. The neighbors living in a housing development next to the Dudbridge, Gloucestershire, site are none too happy with the production facility, which is surrounded by a seven-foot fence, surveillance cameras and patrolling guards. Many are concerned about the carcinogenic effects of the chemicals and the close proximity to so many dead animals.

Hirst’s “The Incredible Journey” sold for almost $2,000,000 (plus buyer’s premium) in 2008.

But collectors should be concerned for other reasons as well. One pickled zebra in a living room is certainly a conversation piece. But will the über-rich still be inclined to buy if many similar works are manufactured on an assembly line? It didn’t seem to affect the value of Andy Warhol’s work, which was factory-produced by the hundreds in the 1960s. But a silkscreen painting and a wet-preserved lamb are two entirely different aesthetics. Will the market stay strong for art that requires a tank of toxic solution for display? It will be interesting to find out.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.

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3 Responses to “Damien Hirst’s Natural History Series: Will it Pass the Test of Time?”

  1. Not to mention the stigma attached to such “art” by folks like me who love LIVE animals.

  2. Larry Quirk says:

    What the uberrich do with their money is up to them but when you spend $2M or $8M on a tank with a dead animal in it, they have reached the edge of the cliff. What Hirst is selling is hype and his “art” is just the physical item that he needs to transfer to the buyer as the snake oil salesmen did. It might be a tired idea but no less a true one that one could do so much good for others with that money rather than giving it to one man who is working the system.

  3. It’s artistically distasteful, environmentally irresponsible, and just plain gross. This “art” disregards, rather than celebrates, life. And the restaurant’s “cock and bull”? I’ll stick with carryout, thanks.

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