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10 facts about Damien Hirst’s The Currency

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Nov 8, 2023

The Currency by Damien Hirst grabbed countless headlines due to being seen as a referendum on traditional art versus NFTs.

While the collectors’ choices and their implications were part of what Hirst set out to examine, however, The Currency is a lot more than a poll pitting the worlds of traditional and decentralized art against each other.

Let’s look at 10 facts about this polarizing collection, starting with the one that led to the aforementioned headlines.

1. Buyers had one year to choose between the physical art and its corresponding NFT

Initially, every collector was given an NFT and the choice to trade it in for its physical version. They then had one year to change their mind. 

At the end of that, however, whichever version they did not choose would be burnt. 

The burning took place during Frieze Week 2022, attracting media attention once again. While some of the press covered the event as the natural conclusion of The Currency, and one that raised interesting questions about the essence of art, others criticized it as wasteful and distasteful during a cost-of-living crisis, or as nothing more than a publicity stunt.

2. It explores the boundaries between money and art

Damien Hirst says he never understood money. 

Money is ethereal, based on belief and trust. We all must agree it is worth something and believe that the institutions responsible for regulating it are doing a good enough job to ensure it maintains that value.

The relationship between art and its financial value is even more complex. 

Certain artworks manage to achieve a high enough status and fame that you can still get a consensus that they’re valuable, but that is far from being the case with most art. Some pieces might be worth millions – but that worth is based on the belief of a tiny segment of the population.

During a conversation with Stephen Fry, Hirst described The Currency as “an experiment in belief.”

3. Hirst chose 10,000 artworks as a number large enough for them to be used as currency

Initially, Hirst considered making a much smaller collection. He ended up making 5,000 but realized that even that many weren’t enough for his goal – to make a collection large enough that it could be moved around like money. That’s when he decided he’d have to double that number and go up to 10,000 items.

4. The artworks share other characteristics with money

The individual pieces in The Currency look, at a glance, so similar to each other that they might be mistaken for prints. That that similarity can evoke a feeling of interchangeability – of fungibility –  is no accident.

Additionally, each piece in the collection has a watermark of Hirst’s logo and a hologram of his head, mimicking two of the most well-known and widespread security features found in banknotes around the world.

5. Despite looking similar, each piece is unique

Each iteration of The Currency is handmade and unique. Hirst was intentional in leaning into the imperfections for this purpose.

Even though Hirst improved his dot-making technique during his career until he could make perfect dots – and had used those perfect dots in his art for 25 years – in The Currency, he chose to go back to making messy dots, realizing he liked them and the individuality they brought to each piece.

Damien Hirst, 2012, photograph by Andrew Russeth, licensed under CC BY 3.0

Besides their slightly varying shapes, and of course, their differing distributions on each paper, no two dots share the same color within each piece. Every time a similar color was used, it was first mixed with another, ensuring a different shade every time.

When discussing The Currency, Hirst and Stephen Fry wondered if the little mistakes you can find in some of the artworks might make those pieces more valuable, as happens with misprinted stamps and banknotes.

6. The titles were created using machine learning

Every item has a distinct hand-written title on its back. While hand-written, the titles were created by a machine-learning algorithm trained on Hirst’s favorite song lyrics. 

The titles add their own spin to each artwork. If you sort the NFTs currently on sale on OpenSea by “Price: high to low”, you might notice that the one titled “To the Moon” is among the top rows.

7. Hirst tried to make access to the art as democratic as possible

Besides avoiding scalpers, Hirst wanted to try to make The Currency more accessible to the general public. At $2000 each, the artworks – while certainly not accessible to everyone — were dramatically cheaper than any other of Hirst's work up to that point.

To that end, those interested in buying had to apply to do so.

Knowingly or not, Hirst’s decision aligned with the principles commonly espoused by the Web3 community.

8. The art is everything: the paper artworks, the NFTs, and how people interact with them

“It’s as much about the movement of the objects as it is about the objects,” Hirst commented during a conversation with Mark Carney.

The Currency is not just about its individual items or even the collection as a whole, just like it isn’t merely a poll. It’s about those things, yes, but also about how people perceive it, interact with it, and the questions it makes them ask. 

Would the art truly end up being traded and moved around like money? Would each piece’s individuality affect its price, or would the collection become fungible? Which version of the art would each buyer choose, and what choice would prove predominant? 

What does all of it say about the essence of art – and that of money?

Hirst said he had no idea how people would choose, stating his predictions would swing wildly from one day to the next.

He admitted that the idea of burning the physical art was a lot more painful to him than burning the NFTs, even though he thought it should all be the same to him. His preference was, according to him, a reflection of the confines of his own beliefs.

9. In the end, 5149 buyers chose the physical paintings, and 3851 kept the NFTs

(No, that’s not a typo – Hirst kept 1000 artworks to himself, so we excluded those.)

Approximately 43% of collectors chose to keep the NFT

Even a die-hard NFT collector might find that number surprisingly high. After all, Damien Hirst comes from the traditional (meaning, in this context, physical) art world; The Currency was his first foray into NFTs. Plus, among the general population, most still don’t even understand what an NFT is. 

On the other hand, it would make sense for the NFT community to jump at the opportunity to grab an NFT that stands at the intersection of the traditional and web3 art worlds. We also can’t forget that the fact that buyers initially got an NFT might have posed a barrier for many would-be collectors, either due to the technological challenge (or, at least, the bother) of creating a crypto Wallet, or personal aversion to the idea.

10. Hirst chose to keep all of his 1000 artworks as NFTs

In a decision that Hirst appeared to hardly believe himself, Hirst went all-in on NFTs for the artworks he kept.

Among the reasons for his choice, he cited that he’d fallen in love with the NFT community – how supportive it was and the values it displayed. He also wanted to continue exploring the world of NFTs since it was exciting and the one he knew the least about, allowing him to continue the adventure he started with The Currency.

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