At Large  March 25, 2024  Rebecca Schiffman

Dating Discrepancy in Damien Hirst's Formaldehyde Works Rocks Art World

Courtesy Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Damien Hirst, Cain and Abel, pictured in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. 

The Guardian has published two reports raising questions about the authenticity and dating of four of Damien Hirst’s celebrated formaldehyde sculptures from the 1990s, alleging that they were actually created in the 2010s. 

The first report, released on March 19, 2024, cites an unnamed source alleging that Hirst’s company, Science, instructed staff to artificially age the sculptures to appear as though they were made decades earlier. The second report, released on Friday, March 22, backed this claim by reporting on a sale in which a formaldehyde shark work, which sold for about $8 million, was dated 1999 but was created in 2017.

Four sculptures are at the heart of the account: Cain and Abel (1994), Dove (1999), and Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded (1993-1999) from the first report; and The Unknown (Explored, Explained, Exploded) (1999) in the second report. All four works feature animals in the formaldehyde solution displayed in glass boxes, from twin calves to a bird with its wings outstretched and two sharks, both dissected into three pieces. The Natural History series in which dead animals are preserved in formaldehyde in vitrines, launched Hirst's career in the early 1990s and are among the most iconic works of the Young British Artists.


Damien Hirst in 2021

The first three works listed above first went on view at Gagosian’s Hong Kong gallery in 2017 and had never been seen in public before. The reports allege they could find “no mention anywhere of the works having existed, in any form, prior to 2017.” In addition, sources close to the works said that the works were less than a year old when they were exhibited in Hong Kong

Hirst’s company, Science Ltd, confirmed that the three sculptures were made in 2017, stating that the date assigned to the works does not necessarily represent the date they were physically made. Rather, they refer to when Hirst first conceptualized the idea of the work. “Artists are perfectly entitled to be (and often are) inconsistent in their dating of works," Hirst’s lawyers told The Guardian.

However, museums and institutions are having a tough time with this statement, as the industry standard for artwork labels is that dates refer to the physical work was created, not when the idea of the work was first conceived. Furthermore, they were under the impression, from Hirst’s studio’s instructions, that the works were created in the 1990s. The Guardian spoke with Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History which exhibited Cain and Abel and they said they “understood [1994] to be the creation date of Cain and Abel as per artwork label convention.” 

“Cases like this don’t help assuage doubts about the lack of transparency in the art world," said Jo Baring, former director of Christie’s. "Hirst is an artist who wields so much power, he is much in demand by museums, who want to boost their ticket sales, and also collectors who want to own a touch of the stardust. But that power means that people are afraid to challenge or ask questions.”

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