Ten years after Damien Hirst’s notorious 2008 London auction, which took place in Sotheby’s New Bond Street room, the space once again became the site of the year’s biggest art scandal. In the face of the financial crisis and the closure of some of the world’s most prestigious financial firms, Hirst managed to sell his collection of works for a staggering £111m, shattering the world record for an auction sale dedicated to a single artist.
Back in October and almost exactly a decade later, Banksy hit the headlines with his scandal. Just as the auctioneer announced the final sale on the $1.37 million piece, an alarm was sounded and Banksy’s Girl with Balloon shredded itself in front of a stunned audience. The prank, which was all anything could talk about for the next few months, was divisive—either heralded as a pioneering parody of the ridiculous value we place on art, or criticized as being an inside job and publicity stunt by Sotheby’s.
The unnamed buyer of the work was not upset by the shredding, and still agreed to pay for Girl with Balloon, as it was even suggested by The Evening Standard that the piece had doubled in value after its destruction. The Banksy stunt dominated headlines and overshadowed any other works that were sold during the auction—most notably Jenny Seville. When her work Propped (1992) sold for £8.25m (£9.5m with fees) Saville became the most expensive female living artist. In a similar record-smashing sale back in May, Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times was bought by P. Diddy and became the most expensive painting ever sold by a living African American artist. Such records prompted art advisor Lisa Schiff to claim “it’s a bad time to be a white male artist,” but 2018 was still undeniably dominated by pale males.
David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) became the most expensive painting ever by a living artist in November when it sold for another record-breaking $80 million ($90.3m with fees). The Hockney sale was seen by many to be representative of the sickening heights that the money-drenched elite of the art world has reached, something that was also the focus of The Price of Everything, a polished and slick documentary released in October by Nathaniel Kahn. Exploring the love story between art and capitalism, the film centers on auction houses, specialists and wealthy investors who make the art world their playground, and compares them to those artists deemed no longer relevant by the market. Kahn’s documentary becomes almost a warning for the future of the art world and questions whether these high-prices are sustainable.
2018 was even the year where we questioned the role that artists play in art creation as Christie’s New York became the first auction house ever to sell a work of art created by artificial intelligence. The smudgy and controversial, portrait of the fictional Edmond de Belamy sold for a whopping $432,500, causing uproar and what many decreed the end of the artist. But what will 2019 hold? Will the art market continue to strengthen and if so what records will be smashed? Will we even need artists? Tad Smith, Sotheby’s chief executive, predicted the art market in 2019 would be “more subdued” than that seen in early 2018 but we will wait and see.