Around 2003-04, Damien Hirst hatched a typically Hirstian plan to publish a print in an edition of 1 million. You could interpret that either as a playfully subversive ruse designed to poke fun at the very concept of a limited edition, or you could see it as evidence of the same process of self-aggrandizement that culminated in last year's Hirst auction at Sotheby's that netted him £111 million.
One of the things that prompted Hirst into his fanciful print idea - which he eventually abandoned - was a realisation that his print market was booming. He started his print-making enterprise back in the late 1990s in collaboration with the pioneering online limited edition print retailer, Eyestorm. The result of that partnership was the now famous spot prints which sold in their thousands and which have gone on to become highly collectable, particularly now that Hirst has decided to make no more of them.
When Hirst got bored with signing his limited edition spot prints he began adding occasional jokey scrawls where the signature should be, or writing ‘David Hockney', ‘Dick Head', and so on, instead of his own name. These prints are now highly prized as anomalies within the series.
The internet played no small part in driving the contemporary print market during the recent art boom as low-level collectors flocked to secure Hirst's spot prints online. Soon eBay started to play a part and by 2004-05, a new breed of young collector was viewing the online print market as a place to make a buck. The emergence of the Urban Art movement - the stenciled street graffiti style pioneered by Banksy and subsequently emulated by thousands of others - added further impetus to the contemporary print trade.
In 2006, Banksy's London gallery, Lazarides (aka LazInc), concerned at the number of people who were buying just to sell on at a profit, was prompted into issuing a warning to buyers of their limited edition print series. Anyone who appeared to be buying the prints online before offering them on eBay at a profit would be liable for excommunication. But by then the cat was out of the bag and some speculators were selling the prints on eBay before the cardboard tube containing the artwork had even reached them through the post.
This practice, known as ‘flipping' - buying and selling quickly for a profit - played a significant part in creating the boom in the art market, a market that is now losing altitude like a punctured hot-air balloon. Art speculators are not only City types in smart suits short-selling Richard Prince or Murakami canvases for millions of dollars; they're also twenty-something dudes in combat trousers who like to buy Urban art prints for a couple of hundred quid and then benefit from the hype by flipping them a short while later for a small profit.
Of course, not everyone buys for that reason and not all Urban art prints are hyped. But if there is a feeding frenzy around a particular edition - as there was with Hirst's spot prints - you can be sure that a fairly sizeable proportion of buyers will be buying principally for investment reasons.
Here's an example. Having booked a stand for the first time at the London Art Fair (which happens every January at the Business Design Centre in Islington), London print gallery Black Rat Press began emailing its client list with news that a special limited edition Empire State print by one of its artists, Nick Walker (illustrated above), would be issued to coincide with the 2009 fair. People immediately began signing up to buy.
When the fair finally opened last week, there was already a sizeable queue of people outside chomping at the bit, eager to grab one of the 175 signed limited edition prints, which were retailing at a not insignificant £450 a pop. Knowing the rush would be mad and feverish, Black Rat Press staff were taking details direct from the queue outside before the fair began so that they would have the invoices already written and ready by the time the doors opened. By close of play that evening, the entire edition had sold out, save for a few sympathetically kept in reserve for overseas clients who had expressed interest.
"We wanted to liven things up a bit, bring some vigour to the fair," said Leon Martyn of Black Rat Press. "It's the first time we've done the London Art Fair and the response was phenomenal. The attention generated by the print promotion was also something the fair organisers had never experienced before. This just demonstrates that it's not all recessionary doom and gloom. There are people out there willing to part with their money." But whether they're doing so with a view to turning a fast profit is a moot point.
Another young British artist hoping to have the crowds queuing for his work is Ben Moore, a recent graduate of Staffordshire University Art and Design course whose work will go on show next week at SaLon Gallery in Westbourne Grove.
Moore likes to dress up as a trooper from Star Wars and position himself in public places. He also manipulates images to turn them into satirical commentaries on contemporary culture, celebrities, etc.
While his work is occasionally amusing, it's hard to see his dressing up project as any more meaningful or entertaining than the street performers who dress up as Elvis or statues and line the Thames at the South Bank every weekend busking for a few quid. Meanwhile, his Photoshopped images are of a kind - and content - that can be seen on any satirical website on the internet. It is doubtful whether there is enough going on here to justify singling out Ben Moore as an artist to watch, but perhaps the exhibition will contain work of more substance.
Watch this space for a review of the show.
Despite the recession, punters flocked to the opening night of the 2009 London Art Fair at the Business Design Centre in Islington on Tuesday. (2 images)
Empire State, a limited edition print by urban artist Nick Walker, which sold out in minutes at the London Art Fair this week.
Gay Chevara by Ben Moore, one of the manipulated images which will form part of ‘ART WARS' - Moore's first London show at SaLon Gallery in Westbourne Grove commencing on 15th January. Image courtesy SaLon Gallery.
Credit Crunch, one of Ben Moore's satirical prints on view at SaLon Gallery from January 22. Image courtesy SaLon Gallery.