Damien Hirst shark which sold for around $8 million is 2017’s fourth work from the 1990s

<span>Damien Hirst in front of the shark statue during a party at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas in 2018.</span><span>Photo: David Becker/Getty Images for Palms Casino Resort</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/MaE6Hdu_0g_AqU9bDOz5GA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTYzNQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/5c4278f3dacccad33a9423ed6 6d0043f” data-src= “https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/MaE6Hdu_0g_AqU9bDOz5GA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTYzNQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/5c4278f3dacccad33a9423ed66d00 43f”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Damien Hirst in front of the shark statue during a party at the Palms casino resort in Las Vegas in 2018.Photo: David Becker/Getty Images for Palms Casino Resort

A Damien Hirst shark preserved in formaldehyde bought by US billionaires dated back to the 1990s, even though it was only created in 2017.

The four-metre-long tiger shark, dissected into three parts, is the centerpiece of a luxury bar at the Palms casino resort in Las Vegas. It first appeared in the casino six years ago, with the title: The Unknown (Explored,Explored,Exploded), 1999.

However, research by The Guardian has revealed that it was made in 2017, almost twenty years after the date publicly attributed to the work. The sculpture was purchased by billionaire brothers Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta III, amid suggestions that it would cost around $8 million.

Related: Damien Hirst formaldehyde animal works from the 1990s were created in 2017

The enormous shark is Hirst’s fourth formaldehyde sculpture known to have been created in 2017, despite dating from the 1990s. The other three, made with a pigeon, a small shark and two calves, have been exhibited in recent years in galleries in Hong Kong, New York, Oxford and London, dating from the 1990s.

The revelation that some of Hirst’s formaldehyde works were given a date that does not correspond to the date they were physically created has rocked the contemporary art world this week.

“These kinds of things do little to dispel doubts about the lack of transparency in the art world,” said Jo Baring, former director of Christie’s auction house in Britain. “Hirst is an artist who wields so much power, he is in demand by museums that want to boost their ticket sales, but also by collectors who want to own a touch of stardust. But that power means people are afraid to challenge or ask questions.”

Hirst did not immediately respond to questions when asked about the tiger shark piece, The Unknown. Sources familiar with the creation of the statue say it was created in 2017 in preparation for installation at the hotel.

When it was first unveiled to much fanfare in 2018, the previously invisible tiger shark was described by the casino as a piece from the 1990s. The date ‘1999’ was included in the title of the work, which is usually provided by the artist, and included in promotional materials.

It is commonly believed that dates attributed to works of art refer to the year in which they were completed. However, in response to questions from the Guardian, Hirst’s company, Science Ltd, said the date the artist assigned to formaldehyde works did not represent the date they were created.

“Formaldehyde works are conceptual works of art and the date Damien Hirst assigns to them is the date of the work’s conception,” the company said. “He has been clear over the years when asked what is important in conceptual art; it is not about the physical creation of the object or the innovation of its parts, but about the intention and idea behind the work of art.”

Hirst’s lawyers later clarified that while using the date of conception in the title was the artist’s “usual approach” to working with formaldehyde, he sometimes used the date the sculptures were created. “The dating of artworks, and especially conceptual artworks, is not controlled by any industry standard,” they said, adding: “Artists have every right to be (and often are) inconsistent in their dating of to work.”

However, that approach appears to run counter to widespread norms in the art world. Jon Sharples, a respected art and intellectual property lawyer, said Hirst’s works were bought and sold in a market that took origins and provenance very seriously.

“If there’s only one date mentioned in the title of a work of art, that’s what the convention, and I think most people would mean, is that it was first physically created in that year,” he said. In that context, he advises sellers and artists to “err on the side of transparency” when it comes to dating their works.

Baring, director of the Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art, agreed with the convention. “There is certainly a best practice, which is to include the date of physical creation of a work, or, if there is a major difference between conception and creation, to include both dates,” she said.

It is not known what information the Fertitta brothers received about the origin of the shark statue when they purchased it. The brothers, who sold mixed martial arts promotion company Ultimate Fighting Championship for $4 billion in 2016, declined to comment. That also applied to the Palms resort, which is now under different owners.

In 2018, the Palms’ then-general manager gave an interview to the LA Times in which he hinted that the brothers had paid a similar amount for the shark as US hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen paid for a similar tiger shark in 2004. Estimates vary for the cost of that piece, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Nobody Living (1991), a slightly larger tiger shark. However, it reportedly cost Cohen between $8 and $12 million.

Whatever the Fertitta brothers paid for their Hirst shark, it expanded their already considerable collection of the artist’s work, which they had been building for years. After purchasing the Palms casino and hotel in 2016, they began filling it with contemporary art by Hirst and others. The hotel still features a luxury suite designed by Hirst, which costs $75,000 per night.

But it was the shark that crowned the $620 million renovation of the Palms complex. It was brought in under cover of darkness, installed in secret, and the unveiling of the sculpture in May 2018 attracted the attention of the American press.

In press materials distributed to news media and magazines, the Palms casino announced the official title of the work, along with the date “1999.” The same date was used in licensed photographs of the sculpture and in sponsored content paid for by the casino, which described the piece as “an important work from the artist’s Natural History series”.


The Fertitta brothers sold the Palms casino to the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in December 2021. One source at the resort said the shark statue would remain on loan to the site until at least 2025.

Hirst has rarely made public comments about the work, although he has occasionally posted about it on his Instagram account. For example, he did this in May 2018, shortly after the shark was installed, and just a few months after it is known to have been created in his workshop in Dudbridge, Gloucestershire.

“I’ve known Frank and Lorenzo for years, so when they asked me if they could put my shark sculpture from their collection – ‘The Unknown (Explored, Explored, Exploded)’ – in the @palms bar, I thought it sounded great,” he wrote.

In a more recent Instagram post, from September 2022, Hirst published three photos of himself, adorned in gold jewelry, posing in front of the statue, which was then five years old. In one of them he winks.

“If you’re in the Vegas area, come to my unknown bar at the @palms casino and have a drink!” He wrote. “Thank you to everyone at the Palms for loving my art so much!!”

Additional reporting by Dan Hernandez in Las Vegas

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