Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.
It was a project always destined to go up in a puff of smoke, at least part of it. And now British artist Damien Hirst has announced he will burn thousands of his paintings at his London gallery as part of his year-long NFT project, baldly titled “The Currency.”
From September 9, visitors to Hirst’s private museum, Newport Street Gallery, will get the chance to view some of the 10,000 oil paintings on paper that the artist created in 2016 and then linked to corresponding NFTs in 2021.
Buyers who purchased one of the 10,000 NFTs for $2,000 each have been asked to choose whether to keep it or trade it for the physical work. If the former, the painting will now be exhibited before being burned. The works are due to be destroyed daily during the run of the show, culminating in a closing event during Frieze Week in October when the remaining paintings will be torched.
At the time of publication, and with less than a day left to decide, 4,751 people had swapped their NFT for a physical work, with 5,249 buyers set to retain their NFTs.
Describing the project as his “most exciting by far,” Hirst told The Art Newspaper in March that it “touches on the idea of art as a currency and a store of wealth.” He added: “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.”
Of course, Hirst has been using the market as his medium for decades. In 2007, he made “For the Love of God,” a sculpture consisting of a platinum cast of an 18th-century human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. In a move that predated the current trend for tokenizing art, the work was sold in August 2007 (for £50 million, then around $100 million, Hirst reportedly claimed) to a consortium that included the artist himself.
In 2008, during the week Lehman Brothers crashed and the global economy went into meltdown, Hirst sold 218 works directly from his studio via Sotheby’s auction house for £111 million (then over $200 million). Not only was the event unprecedented in its scale and ambition, it also cut out the gallery middleman – and ultimately flooded Hirst’s market, which has never truly recovered.
As for “The Currency,” the NFT marketplace that handled the initial sale, Heni, has been producing a monthly report analyzing the buying and selling of Hirst’s NFTs on the secondary market, which has sharply dropped in value since the project began and as cryptocurrencies have plummeted. The first report notes how, between July 30 and August 31, 2021, there were 2,036 sales of “The Currency” totaling $47.9 million. Meanwhile, in June this year, just 170 sales took place, bringing in a total of $1.4 million.
The resale of physical works appears to be faring better. In January, one of the original paintings sold at Phillips auction house in London for £18,900 ($23,000).