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The World's Wealthiest Artists


February 22, 2010

Damien Hirst, © Patrick McMullan Company

New York, NY — It is not easy to make a living as an artist. Even as the market for contemporary art has expanded in the past 50 years — then recently contracted, only to begin expanding again — a mere handful of artists have made considerably amounts of money during their lifetimes. But those who have succeeded have done quite well indeed.

British artist Damien Hirst’s enormous wealth has become part of his persona as an artist, uniting him with the super-rich collectors he alternately celebrates and satirizes in his work, but he is only the most visible example of this growing affluence sector. The art world, being the room of smoke and mirrors that it is, makes figuring out personal wealth tricky business — after all, the stratospheric auction prices that grab headlines end up lining the pockets of sellers and auction houses, not artists. (This is this traditional case, with one noted exception below.) And when prices for works offered in galleries are made public, one never knows what cut the artist is taking home (plus that initial price tag often shrinks before the sale is negotiated, drastically so in recessionary times).

Nevertheless, it’s possible to draw some conclusions based on public information (and careful inquiries into back room sources). Below, find eight of the art world’s wealthiest.

Damien Hirst
Most likely the world’s richest artist, Hirst, 44, seems to turn everything he touches into gold. The 2009 Rich List published by the UK’s Sunday Times estimated Hirst’s fortune to be an impressive $388 million. That was up $110 million from 2007, and now several sources close to the artist claim that the Hirst’s wealth has shot over the billion mark in U.S. currency. In 2008, when he sold a complete show of 223 works at Sotheby’s in London — the sale (and performance-art masterstroke) was titled “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” — the high-water mark of the boom years raised $198 million, breaking the record for a single-artist auction. The sale also broke Hirst’s own auction record when the Golden Calf sold for $16 million. Dramatically, and somewhat controversially, the fact that Hirst sold his work directly through Sotheby’s — a taboo in the art world, where artists rarely even appear in the salesroom when their work goes under the hammer — meant that he received the lions share of his winnings. And who can forget For the Love of God, 2007, the human skull that Hirst recreated in platinum and 8,601 diamonds? It sold for a whopping $77.9 million — never mind that Hirst, a dedicated showman, was himself a part of the consortium that bought the work. A consummate financier who runs nearly a dozen sundry businesses on the side, Hirst also is also one of the rare artists that has a personal business manager: Frank Dunphy, who has been with him for more than a decade.

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