September 21, 2020

Frank Dunphy, the Bullish Business Manager Who Helped Damien Hirst Amass Millions, Has Died

Frank Dunphy, the business brain behind Damien Hirst and several other successful YBAs, died on Sunday. He was 82.  

A voluble Irishman known for his pinstriped suits and bowties, Dunphy began working as Damien Hirst’s business manager in 1995 and played no small part in the artist’s rapid rise to financial success as an art world enfant terrible.

At the height of Hirst’s fame, Dunphy renegotiated arrangements with dealers, often securing between a 70 to 90 percent cut of gallery sales for his client—far exceeding the typical 50-50 artist-gallery split. Other times, he encouraged Hirst to circumvent the gallery system altogether, helping to strike deals with auction houses to sell the artist’s new work directly to collectors. 

On the eve of the 2008 recession, he convinced Hirst to put up 223 works for sale at Sotheby’s, bypassing the artists’ galleries, White Cube and Gagosian. The sale raked in $148 million—an all-time auction record for a single-artist sale. 

“I really wouldn’t be here now without Frank,” Hirst told the Guardian in 2007. “He’s a pain in the arse sometimes but he’s straightened me out about money. Basically, he taught me not to be afraid of it.”

“Before he came along, I was like a punk, really,” the artist continued. “I didn’t care about money. Or I pretended not to care. But when the figures start to get high, it’s hard to pretend you don’t care. It scares the shit out of you. He got me over the fear. I’d still be drinking and I’d probably would have found some way to fuck it all up if Frank hadn’t come along.”

A bust of Frank Dunphy by Damien Hirst, completed in 2010. Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images for Sotheby's.

A bust of Frank Dunphy by Damien Hirst, completed in 2010. Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images for Sotheby’s.

Dunphy was born in Portrane, Ireland, in 1937. He moved to London in 1958, where he got a job working for an accountant who catered to performing acts. After taking night classes to become a certified accountant himself, he quickly established his own client base, including jazz trumpeter Roy Castle, actress-dancer Peaches Page, and numerous circus performers across Europe, according to the Guardian.

He took over the business in 1970, offering tax advice to increasingly high-profile creatives such as English actors Imelda Staunton and Ray Winstone. By the mid-1990s, his list of clientele included up-and-coming artists like Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread, and Jake and Dinos Chapman. 

“He was a really good energy around the middle years of the Young British Artists: people were starting to make money and he gave good advice,” Whiteread told Sotheby’s in 2018, on the occasion of a sale of Dunphy’s collection.

The London art world “didn’t know what had hit it,” artist Peter Blake said at the time. “Here was this affable Irishman telling jokes, and suddenly all hell broke loose.”

Featuring more than 200 works from Dunphy’s personal collection, including pieces by Hirst, Emin, Whiteread, and Michael Craig-Martin, the Sotheby’s sale brought in $13 million. 

Last year, 70 pen portraits of Dunphy drawn by Hirst were acquired by the British Museum.

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