Damien Hirst Nets Record at Sotheby's Auction

As the bidding started at Damien Hirst's historic auction in London on Sept. 15 (Sotheby's first ever of a single living artist), the specter of failing financial markets hardly discouraged collectors: Hirst's formaldehyde-preserved animals and diamond-encrusted butterflies netted a staggering $200.7 million, breaking the house's record for a single-artist auction (set in 1993 when a Picasso sale raised $32 million), and making Hirst seem like a better bet than the FTSE.

The event broke with artistic convention, as Hirst and his manager bypassed their usual dealers, the Gagosian Gallery and New York and the White Cube in London (a gallery's cut for a major artist can run up to 50 percent). The gamble paid off, which is likely to have massive implications for the way art is bought and sold. While some gallery owners say they'll always have their place in the market, others fear that giants like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami could follow Hirst's lead.

But is Hirst's work really recession proof—especially given the susceptibility of his pieces to decomposition? "This sale has proved that Hirst is a safe return," says art-market expert Godfrey Barker. "The superrich need somewhere to put their money, and they're pouring it into art. We are entering a world where art is trusted above real estate and General Motors." Along those lines, Hirst plans to invest his new millions in modern masters like Francis Bacon—though it might not hurt to hang on to a few of his own commodity-encrusted creations, too.