In September 2008, Damien Hirst achieved a world-first in the art world: he took 223 new pieces of art to Sotheby’s and sold every single piece within two days. The total value of the sale was $200 million, which broke the record of the last largest art sale by a single artist, which was $20 million, completed in 1993. The pieces included various animals preserved with formaldehyde, and a painting made of dead butterflies. 

For sales of this size, it’s not normally the artists who are behind it. In order to sell a million dollar piece of artwork, you need extremely high demand and strong market value, and this is generated by the dealer. 

Back in the 1990s, art and advertising mogul Charles Saatchi commissioned Hirst to make anything he wanted, after seeing the festering cow’s head he exhibited at his graduation show. And so, Hirst bought a shark for £6000 from an Australian fisherman, injected it with formaldehyde, and displayed it suspended in a glass cabinet. 

The shark sold to billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen in 2004, for a rumoured $12 million.

In order to sell works at such enormous cost, art dealers use a variety of techniques, including opaque pricing, to get buyers to pay more. Dealer-sold artworks prices are always kept private, and this allows the dealer to bump the price up. 

Another technique is creating artwork scarcity. When Saatchi signed Jenny Saville in the mid 2000s, he convinced her to only produce six pieces of art every year. He sold each of these for $100,000. 

Looking to the future, the art market is moving away from its traditional roots in galleries and auction houses, and into new spaces, including the online world. It has become possible for almost anyone to sell their work online, setting the price as high or as low as they wish. 

Video originally created and published by Vox.

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