Monday 16 September 2019

A fine art: The Dubliner who helped Damien Hirst become the world's wealthiest artist

Bono, Led Zeppelin, Coco The Clown and a nude dancer all had starring roles in accountant Frank Dunphy's business career. He spoke to John Reynolds


John Reynolds

Dubliner Frank Dunphy passed up the opportunity to co-manage rock giants Led Zeppelin in 1968 - but he went on to make a multi-million euro fortune managing British artist Damien Hirst, the world's wealthiest and most commercially successful modern artist (you'll know his famous cow or shark in formaldehyde, or more recently a diamond-encrusted skull).

Together they shook up the art world on both sides of the Atlantic and built up an art business worth hundreds of millions.

We're meeting in his central London home, a stone's throw from Park Lane and Hyde Park, where paintings by Picasso, Luciano Fontana and Andy Warhol adorn the walls, along with works by Hirst himself.

The latter controversially feature dead butterflies; one, called Epiphany, has hundreds of them creating a kaleidoscope of colour. No doubt as intended. I feel sad and concerned that so many of them are dead, but also impressed by the work's colours and the sheer creativity involved.

The 77-year-old native of the seaside town of Portrane entered London's showbusiness world in the 1960s. He started out working for a one-man London accountancy practice, doing the books for singers, dancers, touring circuses and their acts. Among them were Coco The Clown and a nude dancer called Peaches Page.

Dunphy eventually established his own tax accounting practice, taking on more successful clients, particularly musicians, as rock'n'roll took off in the Sixties and Seventies. This included Gene Pitney and Billy Furey.

"Another client, Peter Grant, asked if I wanted to co-manage bands from the North of England with him. His first successful one was Eric Burdon and the Animals. Some years later when I again declined, it turned out he'd found Led Zeppelin."

By the time he'd sold his firm and went to work for Hirst between 1995 and 2010, the pair were mixing with the likes of Bono (who gave him a guitar for his 70th birthday and whom he and Hirst helped to raise €40m in the RED auction in 2008 to combat Aids in Africa), the Gallagher brothers from Oasis, and PR and advertising gurus Matthew Freud and Charles Saatchi.

Hirst is as far as you can get from the stereotype of the poor artist having to sell his work to pay for his next meal, thanks to his billing as the Young British Artist who rode the wave of Britpop, the early Blair years and London's re-emergence as the capital of cool - and Dunphy's business mastermind showed him how to navigate the burgeoning art market. Today, the 49-year-old English wunderkind is probably worth a lot more than one Rich List estimate of £215m.

The duo met after Hirst's mother heard that Dunphy's practice looked after art and showbiz types, and asked him to help her son with his accounts.

The Dubliner, who has kept his distinct Irish lilt, continues: "By that time I had about 12 people working for me, and I became great pals with all of the clients. Damien and I bonded over a game of snooker. He'd just won the Turner Prize, and I feel I became a bit of a paternal figure to him and he eventually asked me to be his manager.

"He was just an ordinary lad, brought up in Bristol and Leeds. He always had an entrepreneurial edge, I felt, and he paved the way for his contemporaries."

Dunphy's roots were equally ordinary. He perhaps inherited his business nous from his mother; his father was a male nurse.

"She was a political activist who joined Clann na Poblachta, but also sold a bit of her work from sewing and making clothes."

When he left school, with unemployment rife here he left for London in 1958. "Archway's big Irish community was like a home from home. I took my first job and qualified as a tax advisor after studying at night school."

The gregarious Dubliner is a natural salesman, with a hint of steely determination. While working for Hirst, American gallery owners and Sotheby's auctioneers in New York didn't know what to make of him.

"I wasn't fazed by anyone. I managed to get things done with a smile. My early years gave me a good grounding in dealing with showbiz types and I probably spent a lot of my life massaging their egos.

"At the same time, I didn't have to disclose absolutely all my cards at one time, and I admit I was shrewd in that respect. A lot of my success I attribute to my wife Lorna, a former stockbroker from Liverpool. She's been a tremendous driving force and a calming influence too, and I'd often seek her advice."

What aspect of his adventures with the artist did he most enjoy?

"I got a huge buzz when I closed a big deal. I loved selling, and I'd take people from all over the world around the studios and sell them stuff."

Dunphy points to several key moments during that time. Firstly, knowing how badly some musicians had been treated by their managers in the Sixties and Seventies ("they rarely had any financial management or advice"), he put all of Hirst's affairs "in order and on a structured business footing - that of making art and selling art, all overseen by me."

He negotiated with galleries so Hirst earned between 70pc and 90pc of any sale proceeds, rather than the standard 50pc.

With an eye on his future, he also built up his property portfolio including galleries, houses, land and development sites.

An opportunity to buy back 20 early works from Charles Saatchi proved pivotal and would be just the first occasion that the pair shook up the art establishment.

On the day in question, the Dubliner's wheeler-dealer instincts immediately came into play. "I had to make a quick decision and said yes to his offer, not knowing where I'd get the £10m I needed. I sold some other pieces to raise the money, but there was a loan involved too.

"The bank manager was horrified when I explained we were buying back one work for £500,000 - it was 1,000 times what Damien had originally sold it for," he laughs. "But eventually I managed to buy it all back.

"It was like a company buying back its own shares - but people didn't see it like that. It created tremendous confidence. Important American collectors and others in the art world there especially couldn't get their head around it, but they loved it. And our sales increased hugely."

A second key moment saw him make an enormous profit. Pharmacy was a Notting Hill concept restaurant conceived by Hirst to look like a chemist's shop - so much that people came to get prescriptions fulfilled.

The stools looked like huge paracetamol tablets, glass cabinets were filled with medical packaging; the waiters wore mock surgical gowns. Popular with celebrities at the time, it did well for several years before he and his two co-founders sold it to a buyer who struggled to make a go of it.

When Dunphy heard they were selling the premises, he went there immediately and filled two trucks after offering £30,000 for all the contents - all custom-made and designed by Hirst, right down to the logoed toilet urinals. A year later in 2004, he and a Sotheby's auctioneer masterminded a brilliant plan to auction it all. It made a staggering £11m.

"It was groundbreaking: selling a living artist's work, which had come out of a restaurant."

Throughout his career, he had a considerable degree of luck, and so it would prove in 2008. A sale of Hirst's art for auction in New York that had been made secretly over the previous two years provoked uproar in the art world when they found out about it. Stuffy art commentators hoped it'd fail.

"To a certain extent, they didn't know what hit them. We were breaking all the rules. They believed Sotheby's should never sell living artists' work."

On September 15, the morning of the sale, Lehman Brothers crashed. Dunphy was understandably nervous but resolute; he had pre-sold a lot of pieces. The auction went ahead - and 223 works raised £110m over two days, exceeding all expectations. The famous shark created a stir when it sold for £7.5m.

"The potential consequences of the Lehmans crash were still unknown on the day. People came determined to buy a piece, and all but one of them sold. If the auction had been a few days later, I'm not sure how we'd have fared," he recalls.

Though the artist has since made fewer groundbreaking works (including the famous diamond skull, complete with £12m worth of diamonds - "but worth about £50m: four times the cost of materials," Dunphy laughs), Hirst is currently curating exhibitions for a gallery he owns on London's South Bank that will open next month.

Of his retirement in 2010, the Dubliner says: "I like to think I left Damien and his family very secure and looked after them as a good manager should, and we remain friends."

Not having known anything about art before they met, he fondly recalls the brilliant education he got from the artist. "We toured galleries around the world; they closed especially for us for a few hours. Fantastic days - I learned so much."

While buying works for Hirst's personal collection - said to amount to 2,000 works (including a $30m Francis Bacon and others by Warhol, Picasso, Jeff Koons, Banksy) Dunphy has amassed his own collection of hundreds of pieces, some of which he's now donating to museums because of future inheritance tax implications. However, it hasn't stopped him recently buying works by Paul Henry, the Scottish colourists, and a painting of Portmarnock Strand. "It just captures everything and I look at it longingly," he says.

When I ask about the fortune he's made, reportedly having earned 10pc of all Hirst's sales, he explains: "I'm not sure I'm worth the €89m beside my name in your paper's Rich List. It's surely guesswork. I'm embarrassed by my good fortune, but I've been able to do things like fund the education of the grandchildren of my brother and I." He also owns two further houses on England's south coast, near Bognor Regis, along with a Bentley Arnage and a Mercedes coupe.

He enjoys auctions and still keeps an eye on the art market.

"I like a lot of young artists, but I couldn't say who will be the next big thing. The market has dipped a bit recently, but new investors are still coming into it.

"I always advise people to only buy art if they like it, not solely to make money," he concludes.

' '

My greatest indulgence is... "As you might have expected, it's art."

If I hadn't been an accountant... "I'd have been a chef. I love cooking; old French and Italian dishes especially, some recipes passed down by my mother, and I make a mean Irish stew."

My favourite piece of art that I own is... "Boys and girls in the sunshine, by Damien, featuring butterflies on an orange, pink and aquamarine background that’s now hanging in my living room. It gives such brightness and joy when I look at it."

The most broke I've ever been is... "When I was in my first job after arriving in London, I couldn't afford to go home for Christmas.

"All the time I was writing back to my parents enthusiastically, saying I was too busy to make it back. They were crap times, but that's how it was starting out on £7 and 10 shillings a week - before tax and then minus your rent."

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