Date Dilemma: Damien Hirst’s Shark Controversy

Damien Hirst | Death Denied
Damien Hirst, Death Denied (2008). Source: Gagosian

A Damien Hirst shark sculpture, acquired for $8 million by two American billionaires, has been found to have been created in 2017, despite dated to the 1990s, sparking debate in the contemporary art world about the work’s provenance.

The discovery comes after an investigation by The Guardian. The 4-meter tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde at a posh bar inside the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas belongs to the former owners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III. The purchase of “The Unknown (Explored, Explained, Exploded), 1999” was a part of the $620 million renovation of the Palms complex.

Regarding the sculpture’s origins, the Fertitta brothers chose not to speak. Its reveal back in May 2018 attracted a lot of coverage from the US media. The sculpture is a significant component in the Palms’ promotional materials.

In December 2021, the Fertitta brothers sold the Palms casino to the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. Even after the sale, a resort source claims that the shark sculpture will be kept on loan there until at least 2025.

Hirst’s company clarified that for formaldehyde works like this one, the date represents the conceptual inception of the piece, not necessarily when it was physically made. They emphasized that in conceptual art, the intention and idea behind the artwork are paramount.

Hirst’s lawyers further explained that while using the conception date in the title was Hirst’s typical approach for formaldehyde works, sometimes he did use the date the sculptures were physically made. They also noted that there’s no industry standard for dating artworks, and artists have the freedom to be inconsistent in their dating methods.

Art and intellectual property lawyer Jon Sharples emphasizes the importance of transparency in dating artworks. Director of the Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art, Baring, echoes this sentiment, advocating for providing both conception and creation dates if there’s a significant difference.

Damien Hirst has seldom spoken about the artwork publicly, but he has occasionally shared posts about it on his Instagram account. In May 2018, shortly after the installation of the sculpture at the Palms, Hirst made a post acknowledging its placement. In a more recent post from September 2022, Hirst shared photos of himself posing with the sculpture, which was then five years old, expressing gratitude to the Palms for maintaining his artwork and inviting people to visit the “unknown bar” at the casino.


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