Damien Hirst formaldehyde animal works dated to 1990s were made in 2017

<span>Damien Hirst pictured in November 2017 in front of Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded at the Gagosian in Hong Kong.</span><span>Photograph: South China Morning Post/Getty Images</span>
Damien Hirst pictured in November 2017 in front of Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded at the Gagosian in Hong Kong.Photograph: South China Morning Post/Getty Images

Three Damien Hirst sculptures that were made by preserving animals in formaldehyde were dated by his company to the 1990s even though they were made in 2017, an investigation by the Guardian has found.

The trio of works, made by preserving a dove, a shark and two calves, have in recent years been exhibited in galleries in Hong Kong, New York, Munich, London and Oxford as examples of works from the 1990s, his Turner prize-winning period.

However, all three were made by Hirst’s employees at a workshop in Dudbridge, Gloucestershire in 2017. The artworks first appeared at an exhibition at Gagosian’s Hong Kong art gallery that same year. The show, Visual Candy and Natural History, was billed as an exhibition of the artist’s works “from the early to mid-1990s”.

Among the artworks on show were three formaldehyde sculptures that had never been seen in public before. They included Cain and Abel, 1994, which consisted of twin calves that appeared side-by-side in white boxes, and Dove, 1999, which featured a bird, wings outstretched as if in flight, set in a single liquid-filled acrylic box.

Hirst gave the third piece, a shark dissected into three pieces, the title Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded, 1993-1999. The same sculpture is on show at the Munich Museum of Urban and Contemporary Art.

The Guardian could find no mention anywhere of the works having existed, in any form, prior to 2017. Sources familiar with all three works said that, contrary to the impression given by the dates in their titles, the sculptures were less than a year old when they first appeared in Hong Kong.

Dove, 1999 is understood to have been sold at or after the Hong Kong exhibition. The calves and dissected shark, however, have appeared in several public galleries and museums across the US and Europe, between 2018 and 2024. At every exhibition, they were displayed beside 1990s dates.

Dates attributed to artworks are widely understood to refer to the year they were completed. However, in response to questions from the Guardian, Hirst’s company Science Ltd said the date that the artist assigns to his formaldehyde works does not represent the date they were made.

It said: “Formaldehyde works are conceptual artworks and the date Damien Hirst assigns to them is the date of the conception of the work. He has been clear over the years when asked what is important in conceptual art; it is not the physical making of the object or the renewal of its parts, but rather the intention and the idea behind the artwork.”

Hirst’s lawyers later clarified that while using the date of conception in the title was the artist’s “usual approach” for formaldehyde works, he did sometimes use the date the sculptures were made. “The dating of artworks, and particularly conceptual artworks, is not controlled by any industry standard,” they said, adding: “Artists are perfectly entitled to be (and often are) inconsistent in their dating of works.”

That approach, however, appears at odds with industry norms in the art world. The Guardian consulted a range of art vendors, gallerists, academics and auction houses, including some who have in the past exhibited or sold Hirst’s works. All said the date assigned to a contemporary artwork ordinarily denoted the year it was physically created – not the year it was conceived.

The Gagosian Hong Kong exhibition where the dove, dissected shark and twin calves made their debut was a useful opportunity for Hirst to showcase his older works to a new market in east Asia. In an interview with the South China Morning Post to coincide with the 2017 exhibition, Hirst remarked: “I prefer them now to when I made them.” The same article observed some of the artworks were “showing their age”.

That may accord with a suggestion – denied by Hirst – that there was a concerted effort by his company to give the sculptures the appearance of artworks that had suffered from years of wear and tear. Sources told the Guardian that Science instructed employees to artificially age the sculptures, making them look as if they were made in the 1990s.

Lawyers for Hirst accepted that his works had on occasion “been made to look older or distressed”. But they said that any such steps were part of the “artistic process” and denied “any suggestion that employees of Science have ever been told to ‘physically age’ works of art in order to falsely represent that the works are older than in fact they are”.

Seemingly muddled remarks

While there appears to be broad consensus in the contemporary art world that dates given to artworks denote the year they were made, there are some caveats. For works created over time, or replicated after an initial edition, for example, artists sometimes use a hyphen or oblique to include a date range.

When Hirst displayed the dissected shark in Hong Kong, the title contained one such date range: Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded, 1993-1999. However, the date range Hirst used for the sculpture suggested the artwork was conceived in 1993, and completed in 1999, when it was, in fact, made in 2017.

Subsequent exhibitions, including the one currently showing the sculpture in Munich, dropped the reference to 1999 altogether.

More recently, Hirst made seemingly muddled remarks about the origins of Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded when he commented on them in an Instagram video in 2020, while it was on display at his Newport Street Gallery in London.

Wearing a grey beanie hat, Hirst walked around the pieces of shark, and described the piece as “an idea for a shark in 93 that I didn’t do until quite a few years later”. He added it was made at “a similar sort of time” to when he was cutting up the cow used in his famous formaldehyde sculpture Mother and Child Divided. That piece was created for the Venice Biennale in 1993.

Hirst said in the Instagram post that an exhibition in which the sculpture was appearing, entitled End of a Century, contained “many works I made in the 20th century, before the year 2000”. Hirst’s lawyers said it would be wrong to suggest that Hirst intended to mislead the public in his Instagram post.

Back in 2006, Hirst found himself at the centre of a different debate arising out of the need to refurbish or update formaldehyde pieces that are prone to decay. It related to the piece that made him famous: the formaldehyde shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), which had been bought by the US hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen for $8m.

Hirst offered to replace the 4-metre (14ft) tiger shark inside the tank, which had decomposed. Cohen agreed to pay for its replacement with a new tiger shark suspended in the old tank, igniting a debate about whether it could still be called the same work.

“It’s a big dilemma,’’ Hirst said at the time. “Artists and conservators have different opinions about what’s important, the original artwork or the original intention. I come from a conceptual art background, so I think it should be the intention. It’s the same piece. But the jury will be out for a long time to come.”

The three formaldehyde works made in 2017 before the Hong Kong exhibition, however, raise a very different set of questions around whether Hirst has been sufficiently transparent about the origins of the works. The dove, twin calves or dissected shark were not refurbished formaldehyde works, and neither were they official editions or reproductions of earlier works.

They have in recent years been presented in galleries around the world in a manner likely to lead the public to assume they were created in the 1990s. And it is possible that other Hirst formaldehyde works that have been dated to the 1990s were in fact made in subsequent decades.

Awkward questions

Any ambiguity over the origin of any of Hirst’s formaldehyde works is likely to raise awkward questions, including for the institutions that promote his work. There is no public list, or catalogue raisonné, of Hirst’s sculptural works, so galleries, auctioneers and museums rely on Science for details.

Hirst’s lawyers said galleries, museums and auction houses were typically provided with details of artworks “and are then provided with further information as and when required or raised in any ad hoc queries”. There are now likely to be questions around precisely what Hirst told galleries about the trio of works made in 2017.

In 2021 and 2022, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History displayed what it called “Damien Hirst’s famous Cain and Abel (1994) artwork” as part of Meat the Future, an exhibition about the production and consumption of animal products. Hirst posted a picture of the sculpture on display at the Oxford museum, with the title: Cain and Abel (1994).

A museum spokesperson said: “These dates were provided by Science Ltd, and the museum understood them to be the creation date of Cain and Abel as per artwork label convention. The museum reproduced them exactly as Science Ltd presented them, with the date in brackets, and Science Ltd signed off our artwork label before printing.”


Informed by the Guardian that the work was actually made in 2017, the spokesperson added: “We followed sector practice in adopting the date of creation as supplied by the artist and therefore did not mislead the public.”

The Gagosian, which hosted the 2017 Hong Kong exhibition and subsequently exhibited two of the same works in galleries in New York and London between 2018 and 2023, said: “Gagosian is transparent with its clients. We dispute your points on the same grounds laid out in the responses from Science (UK) Ltd.” The Newport Street Gallery did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, visitors to Munich’s Museum of Urban and Contemporary Art (MUCA) are greeted with Hirst’s dissected shark in three tanks. The title, Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded, appears beside the date 1993. An MUCA spokesperson said: “The museum has worked directly with the artist Damien Hirst and his studio for this exhibition. As such, all artwork cataloguing details have been provided by the artist’s studio and displayed in accordance with the artist.”