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The Globe and Mail

The divorce that has rocked the art world

FILE PHOTO British artist Damien Hirst poses for photographers in front of his painting "White Roses and Butterflies" (2008), in London October 13, 2009.

Kieran Doherty/Reuters

Just when it seemed like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes would take the prize for biggest divorce story of 2012, artist Damien Hirst and art giant Larry Gagosian announced they would be parting ways after 17 years.

Okay fine, this isn't a real divorce. The two men were neither married nor romantically attached (both are, in fact, straight).

But after the Financial Times reported the unexpected news yesterday, the professional separation is reverberating through the art world like a Hollywood couple breakup.

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Hirst, after all, is believed to be the world's wealthiest living artist and Gagosian ranks as the richest art dealer.

So think what you will of Hirst's preserved shark in formaldehyde, theirs was a formidable relationship.

This was not, however, a clash of the titans. Hirst's company, Science Ltd., told the Financial Times that they "reached an amicable decision to part company."

Typical divorce parlance.

From the outside, it seemed like all was business as usual. Earlier this year, Gagosian mounted exhibitions of Hirst's signature spot paintings –completed between 1986-2011 – at every one of his 11 galleries worldwide (this number has since grown to 12).

Maybe they were just suffering from a 17-year itch. Or maybe Gagosian was finally sick of the spots.

New York Times art critic Carol Vogel pointed out yesterday that "Mr. Hirst has never been known for being monogamous, at least not when it comes to gallery representation."

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It's not highly unusual for sought-after artists to be represented by more than one gallery, often in different cities.

But gallery "loyalty" is valued in the industry, especially when the stakes are this high. According to Forbes, Gagosian's reported turnover is $925-million (U.S.) and The Sunday Times reports personal wealth at Hirst's $346-million. So their success was, at least to some degree, mutually beneficial.

Of course, Hirst's wealth is not necessarily a reflection of his talent, which experts consider debatable. He, should anyone need reminding, was the artist behind "For the Love of God", a human skull blanketed in 8,601 Swarokski diamonds. That work, from 2007, was sold for £50-million to a group of investors (including Hirst) by Gagosian's rival White Cube, based out of London.

Of Hirst's loyalty, Vogel also notes, "In 2008 he snubbed both galleries, when Sotheby's in London sold 23 of his new artworks."

Hirst will continue to be represented by White Cube in London, Sao Paolo and Hong Kong.

In other words, the artist remains unattached in New York and Paris.

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