Explained: Why is one of the world’s wealthiest artists set to burn his artwork?

Damien Hirst, who was the United Kingdom’s richest artist in 2020 with an estimated net worth of $384 million as per the Sunday Times Rich List, has announced that beginning next month he will burn thousands of his paintings from a project titled “The Currency”.


Hirst has given collectors an option to choose between the oil paintings on paper that he created in 2016 or the NFTs created in 2021. If they opt for the NFT copy, the corresponding physical one will be destroyed and vice-versa.

The unique proposal

The artist made his NFT debut with “The Currency” series. These were issued in 2021 corresponding with his 2016 spot paintings that used enamel paint on handmade paper.

The 10,000 NFTs from “The Currency” collection feature high resolution images on each artwork, and the original applicants were able to buy it for $2,000 each, though they have been resold in the secondary market in recent months.

The physical artworks, meanwhile, are also numbered and signed by the artist.

Now, Hirst has asked the purchasers of his NFTs to either retain the digital version or trade it for the physical work. If they opt to keep the NFT, the corresponding painting will be torched. The works that will be destroyed will first be displayed at Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in London from September 9. Thereafter, the paintings will be destroyed daily during the course of the exhibition, concluding with a closing event during Frieze Week in October.

Through this project, the artist is weighing physical and digital art against each other.

In an interview to The Art Newspaper, Hirst said, “This project explores the boundaries of art and currency — when art changes and becomes a currency, and when currency becomes art. It’s not a coincidence that governments use art on coins and notes. They do this to help us believe in money. Without art, it’s hard for us to believe in anything.”

An artist’s journey

A graduate in fine art from the prestigious Goldsmiths College in London, Hirst was one of the leading names of the collective Young British Artists (YBA). One of the main organisers of the group’s exhibition, Freeze, that took place in 1988 at an empty Port Authority warehouse in London, his talent was initially spotted by British advertiser and collector Charles Saatchi.

One of his first major international showcases was at the Venice Biennale in 1993, where for the work Mother and Child Divided, he cut a cow and a calf into sections and exhibited them in a series of separate vitrines.

Over the years, he has made several works as part of the formaldehyde series that use dead animals. The collection has received both acclaim and criticism, just like his iconic spot-paintings, also known as The Pharmaceutical Paintings, which he has been making since 1988.

In 2007, the Turner prize winner created a world record for the most expensive work of art sold by a living artist at the time, when his Lullaby Spring in June, a three meter-wide steel cabinet with 6,136 pills, sold for 19.2 million dollars .

Shaking up the art market

Known to provoke through his art, the British artist has also made several astonishing moves in the art market.

In 2007, his work “For the Love of God,” a sculpture featuring a platinum cast of an 18th-century human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, was put on sale with an asking price of £50 million, which would have been the highest price ever paid for a single work by a living artist.

A week after Lehman Brothers announced bankruptcy in 2008, Hirst sold more than 200 works directly from his studio via Sotheby’s auction house for £111 million. Through the first initiative, he cut out the gallery middleman during the sale.

In 2020, New York-based art collective MSCHF purchased a signed copy of one of the artist’s famous spotted paintings, L-Isoleucine T-Butyl Ester for $30,000, and then cut out each of the 88 dots by hand and sold them separately for $480 each.


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