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Damien Hirst’s Backdating Scandal

May 24, 2024
A photograph of the British artist Damien Hirst in a black polo shirt and sunglasses.

Damien Hirst (photo courtesy of Christian Görmer)

Damien Hirst has always been controversial to some. While he is often hailed as one of the greatest artists to come out of Britain in the 1990s, he has always received his fair share of criticism. Some of it comes from people who do not like his art from an aesthetic point of view, particularly those associated with the Stuckist art movement. Some critics and fellow artists have dismissed his work as “tacky” and “over-rated”. While artistic taste is inherently subjective, claims of plagiarism and backdating are pretty cut-and-dry. Hirst has had such accusations leveled at him for much of his career, and now new allegations are starting to surface.

In March of this year, claims circulated that some of Hirst’s most iconic pieces, a series of conceptual works consisting of animals in glass boxes filled with formaldehyde, may have been created far later than was advertised. Hirst started this series in 1991 with The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, featuring a tiger shark caught off the coast of Queensland, Australia. The actual shark carcass reminds us of death. At the same time, the formaldehyde solution preserves the animal’s life-like appearance by not only preventing decay but also giving it the impression that it is swimming in a tank. The original piece was lauded as one of the greatest works of art to come out of Britain in the 1990s. It soon spawned a series, with Hirst placing any number of different animals in glass tanks filled with formaldehyde. In 2017, three of these works, allegedly made between 1994 and 1999, were exhibited for the first time at the Gagosian Gallery in Hong Kong. Some, however, grew suspicious that an artist of Hirst’s prominence would refrain from exhibiting work so long after their creation. This prompted an investigation by The Guardian, which led to the discovery that these pieces were likely made not in the 1990s but in the months leading up to the Hong Kong exhibition in 2017. One of the formaldehyde works, The Unknown (Explored, Explained, Exploded), was sold for $8 million to Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the latter of whom is CEO of Station Casinos. Consequently, the work appeared behind the bar at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas.

This led researchers to delve into Hirst’s entire back catalogue to see if there was any other evidence of backdating. Sure enough, The Guardian released a follow-up this past Wednesday, reporting that Hirst likely created many paintings later than what he assigned. These paintings are primarily part of his series The Currency, consisting of dots of acrylic paint on A4 paper. In 2021, Hirst began to sell 10,000 NFTs of the Currency series, each corresponding to a physical painting, which, according to Hirst, were all made in 2016. Controversially, Hirst made headlines when he announced he would destroy any physical Currency painting sold only as an NFT, prompting many NFT owners to ask for their physical copies. However, despite the date written on the paintings, some sources, including studio assistants who made some of the works, attest that many of the paintings, at least a thousand, were made on a sort of production line between 2018 and 2019. Within a month, the sale of the Currency NFTs generated about $47 million and was done through the vendor site Heni, owned by Hirst’s manager, Joe Hage. While many of the Currency paintings were probably made in 2016, the information provided by Hirst’s studio staff indicates that the artist seemed hell-bent on getting the number of paintings up to 10,000. This is likely because, according to NFT and cryptocurrency specialists, the first well-known NFT sales’ organizers frequently used the number 10,000. Art lawyer Howard Kennedy even called 10,000 “the magic number for an NFT art project”.

When first asked for an explanation in March, Hirst’s company, Science Ltd., stated that “the date Damien Hirst assigns to [his works] is the date of the conception of the work. […] it is not the physical making of the object or the renewal of its parts, but rather the intention and the idea behind the artwork.” I know that art and its appreciation have a good amount of subjectivity baked into it. However, you would think that even the most avant-garde conceptual artists would agree that the date you assign to a piece is when you first physically created it. In Hirst’s world of conceptual art, creating a work of art is not as important as when an artist comes up with the idea. The conception of an artwork is indeed important, but it means nothing until you put brush to canvas or pencil to paper. It is rather refreshing that Hirst is not denying that he created these works later. However, this bizarre workaround makes everything even more frustrating. It also contradicts the Currency series’ description published by Heni for the 2021 NFT sale, which reads, “The physical artworks were created by hand in 2016”. It seems pretty explicit that the date refers to the works’ execution rather than their conception.

Hirst has previously made copies of his works, most notably in 2007 when the Tate displayed a replica of his 1993 work Mother and Child (Divided). The Tate catalogue did not contain a hint of shame or concealment in assigning a later date to those works. This leaves us with a more cynical way to look at all this: it’s all because of money. Hirst made a name for himself in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Therefore, work dating from that time is sometimes more popular among collectors and might bring in more money. In that case, I almost pity Hirst. By backdating these incredibly striking pieces, he admits that his best days are behind him. He would rather keep living his past glories than come up with something new and truly great. Damien Hirst is now the KISS of contemporary art: shocking and shiny at his peak but has now resigned himself to putting out more greatest hits albums than actual studio albums. Could this be an admission that he’s in creative decline?

With these revelations, Hirst’s future seems uncertain. His reputation is certainly damaged in the eyes of many, with The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones writing that this scandal will “threaten to poison Hirst’s whole artistic biography”. But it might not just be his standing that takes a hit, it can also be his bank account. Artists and galleries have been successfully sued for backdating their art. In 2022, Alec Baldwin successfully sued gallerist Mary Boone for selling him a 1996 Ross Bleckner painting that he discovered was actually made in 2010. With millions of dollars on the line, it could only be a matter of time before one of Hirst’s buyers decides to take legal action.