The Billion Dollar Artist

With Dead Head 1991 by Damien Hirst born 1965

A couple of years ago I wrote a proposal for a Damien Hirst biog and hawked it to my agent. He loved it and with a bit of work we got to the point of sending the proposal out to twelve publishers. None of them bit, and the project bit the dust at that time. Nobody hated the idea or the work, in fact several of them loved it. The general feeling was, is Damien Hirst interesting enough. Strangely, as this was an Unauthorised Biography, several publishers insisted that they would only take it if I got Hirst himself on board, i.e. that it became an Authorised biography.

Now I’m looking at it again and wondering if I can pitch it over. I’m not sure it’s worth it as Hirst has really died a death in the last couple of years. Nothing of interest seems to be happening either to him or in his world. I guess if he died it would be a good obituary. But I still think the whole story from Leeds to Goldsmiths’ to the top of the art world is a story worth telling, a story more about our life and times than about Hirst himself, who always seems a bit of a hollow cipher.

Damien Hirst: Billion Dollar Artist

Born to an unmarried Catholic mother in 1965, he never knew his father and his step-father left home when he was twelve. Within twenty years of leaving home in Leeds for London, he had become not only the richest artist in history but a globally recognisable brand.

His career has been an astonishing thing to watch. Catapulted to national fame by the act of suspending a huge shark in formaldehyde, he rose within ten years to the top of the art world and became the first artist to break the billion dollar barrier.

But Hirst didn’t invent the theatre of modern art. He didn’t invent the artist as entrepreneur, factory owner or media star. He didn’t even invent Damien Hirst. So how did the boy from Leeds, Damien Stephen Hirst, become Damien Hirst®, global art star?


Artists in the nineties had two choices: to try to chase Hirst down, join the YBAs, catch a break – or give up art altogether. He was such a powerhouse, there was no way to emulate him. It was very sudden, out of nowhere he had created an entire empire of art and was riding it off into the distance. It was as if he owned the art world, owned all the media, all the journalists, all the galleries, all the money. Hirst scooped up everything like a factory fishing boat, vacuuming up the art ocean, sucking all the art oxygen out of the air.

Once he gained momentum there was nobody in the world who could catch him. As his infrastructure built up, his web of buyers and sellers, factories and iconic moments enmeshed us in Hirstland and it was clear that he was out of our league. He was off the planet. The speed with which brand Hirst arrived was breathtaking, and he knew it.

It was as if he had been born to run in a media saturated millenial art brew, smashing together any elements he desired and flying close to the sun, but never melting the wax on his wings.

Hirst changed popular culture and the art world. He went from Goldsmiths’ student to the most powerful man in the art world in under two decades while dancing on the tables in Grouchos’ in a cocaine haze. He sold over a hundred million dollars worth of work through Sotheby’s on the same day that Lehmans went into liquidation and heralded the world slump. He created ‘the Shark’, probably the most iconic work in the world, and fell out with Charles Saatchi. His production has been prodigious, up to and including the notorious £50m diamond encrusted skull. Then he seemed to falter, to run out of ideas. A return to the purity of painting looked like a bad joke, a slap in the face for his legions of supporters.

But what do we really know about him. Is there a real person behind the cartoon public image. Is he more than the sum of the team that surrounds him? If so, how does he operate and how has he built and retained control of his art empire? What does he think about a world in which, for many years he has been able to have more or less what he wanted.  There is much more to Hirst than the public face.

It is an amazing story set amid the highest echelons of a fast changing world as the old art order was turned over by a gang of arrivistes. Billion Dollar Artist looks at the world that Hirst was born from, the world order that he came to dominate and the effect he had on culture. But underneath it all, it looks at Hirst the man and tries to understand how he came to be whom he is.

This is a the story of how a working class punk from Leeds failed his art O level but rose to the glittering heights of the international art world.

It is a story about London in the nineties, extreme wealth, power struggles in the art world and the drama of creation.

It is the story of the creation of a brand so powerful that it could sell a hundred million dollars of art on the very day that Lehman Brothers collapsed and started the global recession.

It is the story of a mother’s boy who never knew his real father.

This is the story of the life and times of Damien Hirst, the enfant terrible of the YBA scene, billionaire, shark maker, restaurateur, pop star, spot painter, father and art factory boss.

1988: Hirst among equals

Frowned on in the same way as self-published poetry, wistful attempts at exhibitions by friends and co-students have normally failed. Freeze, though, is a success. Organised by Damien Hirst, one of the exhibitors, it brings together the work of 17 recent art school graduates in a derelict Docklands building in south-east London.

The fast Docklands track to simplicity

Sasha Craddock, The Guardian, Sept 1988

I was there at the start, at Goldsmiths’ before it or anyone was famous. I first met Damien Hirst in the spring of 1988, sat in the student bar, feet up on the table, stubby pencil in hand, sketching out ideas while he argued with all the other people in the room. I was his first critic, spending my student days writing scurrilous reports on Freeze and the aftermath as the college almost tore itself apart. I watched his career start at close quarters; I was friends with several YBAs and saw the first Blur gig in the student bar. I went to the Freeze show and I experienced the start of everything that followed. Christ, I was technically a YBA myself. I really was there on day one.

I shared some of Hirst’s background and I understood the ferocity of his ambition, but I also understood the entrepreneurial side of it. I had experienced the punk years, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Aged fifteen, I was producing and selling a fanzine to London record shops. I left school at sixteen—I’d never had an art lesson in my life. We both landed up in London ill qualified to get to art school, and we both ended up at Goldsmiths’.

Following art school I continued to work as an artist while falling deeper into what would become the internet. I built successful internet companies and was involved with much of the early populist growth of the networks. I wrote and published my way through the early days of the net and chronicled the movement that changed the world. In 2000 I sold my company and retired to the seaside to look after my children.

I understood the art world that spawned Hirst and I understood what it meant to build something from nothing. Like Hirst, I understand what it means to bring new things to the world.


We toiled in anonymity during the high waters of Thatcher’s hegemony. Goldsmiths’ art school was situated in a place called Myatt’s Fields, in the quiet no-man’s land between Camberwell and Brixton. Exiled since 1973 to a red brick building, far from the watching eyes of the Warden, we were free to get on with what we wanted. We drifted in the backwash of half understood post-modernist theoreticians such as Derrida and Lacan. The college was well known for its generous admissions policy that didn’t make students nominate a discipline to follow. ‘I went there,’ said Hirst, ‘because they didn’t ask whether you were a painter or a sculptor.’ In his studio, he had already produced an embryonic spot painting and was working on a sculpture ‘… filled with drugs from my grandmother’s medicine cabinet that she gave me before she died,’ he explained. He called it Sinner. Years later his mother Mary, explaining how she fell pregnant as a Catholic unmarried mother cheerfully explained, ‘Damien was my sin.’


The art school had no rigid philosophy and no careerist approach that would lead to success in the art world. Although the success of Julian Opie was sometimes mentioned with hushed breath, on the whole it was expected that you would plough through the course making a series of unholy messes and graduate elegantly before thinking seriously about what to do next. Arcane art practices such as performance, installation and video thrived in a crazy messy collaborative environment. Well known for its serious metal and wood shops and casting foundry, Goldsmiths’ also contained its own bar, deep in the basement of the hulk. Open from mid-afternoon until the early hours of the morning, it provided sustenance for the body and soul and was run with an iron rod by an ex-student, Angie. Hirst was an enthusiastic if irregular visitor. ‘He worked a lot, but used to arrive and demand a drink immediately. If I pointed out that there was a queue, he would just take a glass and pull his own pint,’ she said. He ran up a bar tab even though such a thing was unknown. When she asked him to pay it off, he offered her one of the collages that were on show in the bar. ‘I pointed to one that I liked. He said it was twenty pounds, exactly what he owed. I took it.’

Hirst was a different kind of student. Manipulating those around him with an easy charm, he was always up to something, involved in things with his clubby group, mostly northerners. He’d come down from Leeds a couple of years earlier after being turned down by St Martins, and had hung around, working on building sites and in a telephone marketing operation. A hard worker who earned his own money, it taught him the skills needed to persuade strangers to buy what you had. That skill was to come in very useful sooner than anyone imagined.

A part time job at Anthony D’Offay’s gallery, one of the pre-eminent dealers of eighties London art, gave him an insider’s eye for the art world and was already trying out various strategies. “What I learned from the job was that I wanted to be able to afford a roll of bubble wrap to wrap my own work.”

As the college drifted through 1988, Hirst developed his own trajectory. Gathering a growing group of students around him, he worked first with fellow student Angus Fairhurst on a small show at the Institute of Education. Inspired by shows at the huge Saatchi gallery on Boundary Road, he sought the use of a building in east London from the Docklands Development Corporation. Flushed with redevelopment fervour, they offered him a vacated Port of London Authority building two miles due north Goldsmiths’.


When we reconvened at college for the New Year in September 1988, everything had changed. The art department had moved back to the main campus in New Cross. The studios were in chaos and the workshops absent. There was also a new world order: a small group had started the climb to stardom in our midst. The college had reeled the art department back in to the mother ship. Their eyes were on the sale of the Millard building, converting our satellite into cash, but it was a propitious moment and the entire college would benefit from this generation of art students for decades. They just didn’t know it yet.

The legendary and seminal Freeze show took place between the beginning of August and early September. The chosen students had scraped and painted and cleaned the building. Seventeen of them, they included most of what would become the YBAs. That year they were enthusiastic amateurs who knew how to throw a party. Damien raised money for the catalogue from the LDDC, who wanted community participation. ‘What could you possibly think of to do in an enormous white space with four old ladies, a solid oak table, a meat axe and a stop watch?’ Hirst asked in a letter to potential participants. He used what was left over to transport luminaries from the art world to the show. Hirst laid on transport, and the myth of Charles Saatchi on the back of a taxi motorbike gained currency among art students in the years that followed.

The show got a single review, in the Guardian, from a young critic, Sasha Craddock. ‘I took the bus out to the show with Jon Thompson, head of art, and Damien himself. Jon kept telling me how good Hirst was. The space was incredible, unlike any student show I’d ever seen, and they pressed a proper catalogue into my hands. The next day Damien was round at my house, giving me photos of the work. He was a star.’ Along with most observers, Craddock saw Hirst as the curator and she gave him a scarily prescient accolade: Organised by Damien Hirst … it succeeds perhaps because ruthless decisions have been made by one person, but maybe the very nature of art school products has changed in order to reflect the set-piece one-liner that succeeds in the commercial world.

2008: Beautiful Inside My Head Forever

Hirst recounts a nightmare. His huge Sotheby’s auction is about to begin and the salesroom is overflowing with collectors and dealers. The auctioneer opens the bidding, but the place goes deathly quiet. Not a paddle is raised. In his dream the galleries have convinced everyone not to bid. “This show is risky, I know,” he says, “but it’s too late to worry about it now.”


Twenty years of high prestige shows and high value sales have made him into a global art superstar and he is, in terms of sales, the most successful and richest artist in history. Not since Picasso has an artists name been synonymous with the art world. Along the way he has run restaurants, made pop records and shown his art all over the world. Now he had assembled over two hundred signature pieces of work at Sotheby’s in an attempt to change the rules of the art game forever.

He has spent every day for the last two weeks on Sotheby’s premises, moving easily amid the circus of installation crews, journalists and art critics. Two-hundred and twenty-five brand new pieces of work have been shipped in from Hirts’s Gloucestershire, London and Devon studios. It’s his most ambitious show or sale to date, and the only sale of its kind in art history. The highlights have been on tour, to Bridgehampton, New York, and New Delhi, among other places.  Videos of the work and the artist have been posted on YouTube, the first time Sotheby’s have done this. He shows privileged visitors around. Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend, the Moscow gallery owner Dasha Zhukova, has turned up, as have Old Vic director Kevin Spacey, U2 front man Bono and a few of London’s bright young things: Lily and Alfie Allen, Jaime Winstone and Mark Ronson.  Before the private view he invited potential bidders to his Gloucestershire studios. Those taking up the offer included the fashion designer Miuccia Prada, the Ukranian businessman Victor Pinchuk and Christie’s owner, Francois Pinault.

The catalogue for this auction runs to three volumes: a heavyweight, elegant, partwork in a high quality slipcase with additional slim volumes for two of the most highly priced objects. It costs fifty pounds and seems destined to become an immediate collectors item.


“I love this show, isn’t it incredible,” Hirst croons, pointing to an entire calf in a vast tank of greenish liquid on a plinth of carved marble, it’s hooves plated with gold and a golden disc between its horns. Sotheby’s have gone to huge lengths to market the event, rebuilding its New Bond Street headquarters to show the works as if they were part of a museum retrospective, keeping the viewing open until midnight on Saturday so that more than twenty-one thousand people can get to see it. Most of them will never be buyers, but Hirst is a great draw and the crowds come to gasp at the splendour, at the huge pieces in formaldehyde, the manic spin paintings and the lustrous golden cabinets.


At seven the carefully crafted, two day, sale kicks off. The first lot up on the rostrum, Heaven Can Wait, is a big painting with butterflies, manufactured diamonds and household gloss on canvas, is on the stand. A triptych, three parts, almost three metres long, the title comes from an old film, a wartime movie. An old roué arrives in Hades to review his life with Satan, who will rule on his eligibility to enter the Underworld. It’s a joke, a little Hirstian trope to set the evening off.

The room quietens as the auctioneer raises his hand, but an electric buzz runs from person to person.

In the end it sells quickly. Nine hundred and ninety-three thousand, two hundred and fifty pounds. Just like that.

It’s five past seven. There are two hundred and fifty-five works to go.

A million here, a million there. Pretty soon we’re talking real money.

Lot three. Beautiful Maat Intense Fetishistic Painting (with Extra Inner Beauty). It’s a skull and a spin painting in one.

The Kingdom. A shark, a real shark, in a tank, in formaldehyde. You don’t get more Damien Hirst than that; it’s stunning to see the thing in the flesh at last. It’s not the original, that’s somewhere in America, but we all recognise the shark. We want to cheer. Nine and a half million pounds sterling, it goes for. The room likes this stuff, they bid furiously in a dignified manner. Anxiety, drama, a bit of humour with a bit of laughter at the end. They clap, cheering the buyer, who might be anyone.

Lot seven. A spot painting. Aurothioglucose. We know the spots as well. Lot seven, six hundred and sixty-eight thousand, four hundred and fifty pounds. Sold.

Lot thirteen. It’s a biggie, Golden Calf, 18 carat gold, glass, gold-plated steel and silicone with a formaldehyde solution on a Carrara marble plinth. Vast and elegant, I imagine it being carted out from the tomb of Tutankhamen at Luxor by Howard Carter. What do you see? Wonderful things. It sells for over ten million pounds and is gone forever.

A shark, two sharks, four sharks, something for charity, paintings of pills, more fish, anatomical models in cabinets, butterflies, butterflies, more butterflies stuck to more shiny surfaces.

The Gang

“The first time you sell something is when it should cost the most. I’ve definitely had the goal to make the primary market more expensive. Why, in the world of shoes, do you pay more for a new pair from Prada, while in the world of art, the big money kicks in only when the shoes get to Oxfam?”

Jay Jopling, the founder and owner of Hirst’s London gallery, White Cube, is practically family. He met Hirst when they were both just starting out. Neither had achieved much but both were wildly ambitious and as they lived around the corner from each other in Brixton and Hirst would often end up at the gallerist’s flat for wild drinking parties. Old Etonian Jopling is well connected, both in the art world and politically, his class is the opposite of Hirst’s, his father Baron Jopling, once a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. Despite that, there’s an historic entanglement between the two families, the sort of hidden history that makes their relationship almost unbreakable. Maia Norman, Hirst’s partner and the mother of his three children, was once Joplings girlfriend and broke his heart when she left.

Despite all of this, the auction sale of so much brand new work is a blow to the heart of the dealers and they know it, but they have an interest in this sale passing off well—there will be no tantrums. Their own carefully constructed sales patter rests on Hirst’s position at the top of the tree and nothing can be allowed to undermine the decades long work of promoting an artist into the top ranks. They won’t be sitting on their hands watching, they are ready to bid for specific works, but they must bid on the same terms as everyone else.

That is the reality of their relationship with Hirst, for he is now a powerful and increasingly independent, force. Hirst is a big shark, bigger than the galleries who have nurtured him. He feels he is big enough to take them on, to overturn the natural order of things.  Tonight he will prove it—and it’s all down to Frank.


“Before he came along, I was like a punk, really. I didn’t care about money. Or I pretended not to care. But when the figures start to get high, it’s hard to pretend you don’t care. It scares the shit out of you. He got me over the fear. I’d still be drinking and I’d probably would have found some way to fuck it all up if Frank hadn’t come along.”

Frank is Frank Dunphy, Hirst’s accountant turned partner. He’s a former showbiz accountant whose first clients included Coco the Clown. He has made himself and Hirst extremely wealthy.

Hirst’s mother met Dunphy in the Groucho Club and begged him to sort his son’s money out, she says. She feared he was spending it faster than he earned it. “Can you help me save money?” asked Hirst at their first meeting. “Save it? I’m going to help you make it.” Hirst disputes the story. “We had been aquaintances for a while, it just happened. Had to, really, I was a mess.” What nobody is disputing is the effect Frank had on the embryonic Hirst empire which was staggering under the load of success when they met. “There were issues with the tax man, VAT, the usual,” Frank says. We sorted those out and took it from there. From there to huge wealth. Frank really put the machine into gear and took it out for a spin, bringing in managers and planning for the first time.

“I came on board during the perceived rock’n’roll years,” he says. But this is his swan song, his farewell sale, one for the road. Frank is about to retire to his house on Park Lane and his art collection. The father figure has done good by his boy.


But it was Hirst himself, from the very start, selling work, expanding the brand, outsmarting the competition, until the brand came to consist of whatever Damien did. The money doesn’t seem to faze Hirst, he’s used to it. Even in the days after Goldsmiths’ he was sure of where it was going. He’s always talked about money, but it always seemed natural coming from him. Somehow money works for him, things get made and things get sold, he’s not shy about it. When the auction that followed the collapse of his Pharmacy restaurant in 1999 raised twenty million pounds, Hirst told a journalist ‘It’s all for me. All of it.’ He is rich, richer than ever seemed possible, but the money just fuels more adventurous projects.

‘I had loads of people that used to say to me when we were at Goldsmiths College, what the fuck is wrong with you. I would never sell to Saatchi. You sell to Saatchi’s, you sell out! And now they’ve all done it.’

He repeats what Frank told him, right at the start. ‘Don’t use the art to chase money, use the money to chase art.’ He still believes in that and demonstrates it in all his work. It costs a huge amount to produce this stuff, his company Science Limited is a small business with a multi-million pound turnover. It’s his money and his choice, and the courage is often breathtaking. His can-do attitude has paid off so many times now that it seems hard to know where it might go next. But Hirst does. ‘Watch me. I’ve already got bigger things than this lined up. Much bigger.’ The British art scene has been changed beyond recognition since Hirst and his generation arrived. Without him there probably would be no Tate Modern, no queues outside art galleries, no YBAs on prime ministerial walls. Maybe he can go on changing it—he has the machinery in place, and the wealth.

After the sale he’ll be home and tucked up early, at the family houseboat in Chelsea. He never learned to drive and doesn’t need to now. Maybe someday. The wild years are behind him, he doesn’t think like a pop star any more, more a sober businessman, though an invitation from Bono is never turned down. There are certain things that are expected of you, he explains.

“I just wanted to find out where the boundaries were. I’ve found out there aren’t any. I wanted to be stopped but no one will stop me.”

One Comment

  1. Ande Gregson wrote:

    love it.

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