by by Alex Verdolini

illustration by by Perrin Ireland

It should have been a flop. Just a week before "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever," Sotheby's gargantuan sale of new work by Damien Hirst, the auction house's shares dropped by eight percent over the course of a day. Investors evidently feared that, given Wall Street's looming lull, the hedge-funders might stop snapping up tiger sharks bathed in formaldehyde. (At that point, Wall Street had not yet walked off the cliff.)

And yet: on Monday and Wednesday of last week, as Lehman Bros. caved in and the Fed rushed to save AIG, "Beautiful" raked in over $200 million, $30 million above the high estimate. Of its 223 lots, only five went unsold. Quoth Hirst: "I think the market is bigger than anyone knows. I love art, and this proves I'm not alone."
But what does it prove, really? We know that the art market is bigger than Westchester--oil-rich Russians and Qataris can step in to fill the gap. But that's not half as important as the context of the sale.
As a rule, new works of art do not appear at auction. Artists work with galleries, which sell to collectors, who may in turn pass works on to the auction houses. With "Beautiful," Hirst cut out the middlemen and sold straight to the secondary market. He profited immensely--Sotheby's takes around a fifteen percent cut, while the galleries take fifty--but this development may not bode so well for the art market in general.
Le Monde's Harry Bellet blames the galleries--and prophesies their demise. Their stranglehold on the market, he says, has forced Hirst to take recourse to Sotheby's--and will force others to follow him there. "The galleries' future seems threatened," he writes.
So let's think about the art world without galleries. Chelsea's insider trading, its Byzantine networking, serves to keep the market under some semblance of control. Gallerists conspire to valorize some artists and denigrate others, to establish a bit of coherency amid the raging speculation--so the oilmen and Westchesterites don't get to run the show.
Because we all know just what happens when they do.