Frank Dunphy: The Irishman who made millions for Damien Hirst

Showbiz accountant who became the charismatic business manager for Damien Hirst

Frank Dunphy and  Damien Hirst attend The Opening of “Damien Hirst: The Elusive Truth”  in New York City in 2005. Photograph: Billy Farrell/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Frank Dunphy and Damien Hirst attend The Opening of “Damien Hirst: The Elusive Truth” in New York City in 2005. Photograph: Billy Farrell/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

 

Frank Dunphy, who has died aged 82, was the business brain behind the multimillion-pound career of the artist Damien Hirst. A garrulous working-class Irishman, he gained a reputation for driving hard bargains for his client and running roughshod over the traditions of the art world, negotiating a better deal for Hirst than the 50-50 split of sales artists normally share with their gallery, and cutting the dealers out altogether on several occasions.

The London art scene “didn’t know what had hit it”, recalled the artist Peter Blake in 2018, “because here was this affable Irishman telling jokes, and suddenly all hell broke loose”.

Dunphy conceived two sales in which Hirst’s art was sold directly to collectors via an auction house, a previously unheard-of way of working. In 2003, a restaurant venture, Pharmacy in Notting Hill, designed and part-owned by Hirst, hit the rocks. “I heard the restaurant was folding on a Thursday night,” Dunphy recalled. “And I went straight down there with a truck and bought up everything we didn’t own – the doors, the lights, the sign, the ashtrays, the spoons, the egg cups. A lot of it was about to be burned as rubbish.”

Damien Hirst’s sculpture of Frank Dunphy, Bust of Frank, was completed in 2010. Photograph: Samir Hussein/Getty Images for Sotheby's
Damien Hirst’s sculpture of Frank Dunphy, Bust of Frank, was completed in 2010. Photograph: Samir Hussein/Getty Images for Sotheby's

Dunphy recognised the value and organised for Sotheby’s to sell the lot. The sale, in 2004, raised £11 million in two hours, with martini glasses, which had been expected to sell for between £50 and £70, raking in £4,800, and one bidder spending £1,920 on a pair of salt and pepper shakers.

In 2008, Dunphy persuaded an apparently reluctant Hirst to bypass his representatives at the White Cube and Gagosian galleries and again consign work directly to Sotheby’s, with 223 lots put up for sale over two days. Promising publicity, which was duly delivered via a global marketing tour with stops in Ukraine, the US and India, Dunphy then got the auction house to waive its usual seller’s fees.

Hirst chose not to be in the room on the final evening (he was playing snooker with the world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan in a King’s Cross hall), and left Dunphy to see the hammer come down on £111 million in sales. On the same day, the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and the world faced a global financial downturn.

Dunphy recounted that as an altar boy, he took part in several Old IRA military funerals

“I woke up this morning in the teeth of the gale of recession. But we came out as confident as ever,” Dunphy said at the time.

He was born in Portrane in County Dublin, to Jack Dunphy, a nurse, and Margaret (nee Hickey), a sweetshop assistant and member of Cumann na mBan, the female wing of the Old IRA. Dunphy recounted that Margaret would enlist him and his brother to leaflet the local community and that, as an altar boy, he took part in several Old IRA military funerals – “the lads firing off the old .303s over the grave, and me swinging the chasuble,” he said.

Enrolled at the O’Connell Christian Brothers’ school in Dublin in 1949, he excelled in maths. He left Ireland in 1958 for London, where he answered a newspaper job advert placed by Leslie Hogben, an accountant who offered tax advice to a client base of music hall, circus and jazz acts from his home in Southgate. Taking night classes in accountancy, Dunphy proved a charismatic adviser, attracting new customers to the firm and endearing himself to its existing clients, who included the trumpeter Roy Castle, a nude dancer named Peaches Page, and the musical ensemble the Nitwits. In 1968 the fledgling Led Zeppelin asked Dunphy to manage the band, but he stuck with Hogben.

“I had Coco the Clown and all the top jugglers in Europe on my books,” Dunphy told the Observer in 2007. “I’d go round the circus tents with my interpreter, a wee, small fella who spoke seven or eight languages. I’d have to lift him up onto a chair so he could translate for me. Next thing you know, I was knee-deep in dwarves all looking for their tax returns to be done.”

Dunphy conspicuous in his regular uniform of pinstripe suit and bow tie, habitually with a cornflower in his lapel

He soon became a partner, taking over in 1970 when Hogben retired from the business, which is now known as Hogbens Dunphy. He set up offices in central London and brought actors such as James Nesbitt, Imelda Staunton and Ray Winstone on to its books, to be followed by Hirst and other Young British Artists, or “YBAs”.

In the late 1990s, the Inland Revenue arrived unannounced at White Cube, the gallery that represented Hirst, demanding £32,000 in unpaid tax. Neither gallery nor artist could trace how such a debt had been accrued. Hirst knew Dunphy by sight, as both were regulars at the Groucho Club in Soho – Dunphy conspicuous in his regular uniform of pinstripe suit and bow tie, habitually with a cornflower in his lapel – and the accountant was asked to look into the matter.

Hirst’s former tutor, the artist Michael Craig-Martin, said: “Damien’s intention was always to play the system in favour of the artist. It was when he realised how much money other people were making out of the art that he became interested in doing the same.” Dunphy proved a willing accomplice and, in 1995, started working with the artist full-time, negotiating an increase in Hirst’s share of gallery sales to between 70 per cent and 90 per cent. Dunphy himself took 10 per cent.

In 2007, Dunphy, this time in partnership with White Cube, oversaw the progress of the artist’s most audacious work,

For the Love of God, a platinum cast of an 18th-century human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. It cost £14 million to produce and went on show at the London gallery with a record-beating price tag of £50 million. Dunphy claimed it was sold to a consortium, though the final sale figure and the identity of the buyers is unclear.

A few years after his retirement in 2010, Dunphy put his own collection of art up for sale, as well as offsetting two tax bills through various donations to museums. Naturally, works by Hirst were in abundance at an auction in 2018 as well as paintings and sculpture by other former clients including Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread.

Six works by Hirst, Emin, Whiteread, Blake and Craig-Martin went into the collection of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. The British Museum received 73 pen portraits of Dunphy, which Hirst drew on the back of placemats during the pair’s breakfast meetings at the Wolseley restaurant in London over the years. One dated June 1st 2007, the day For the Love of God went on show, carries Hirst’s handwritten caption “FD Skull Duggery Day”.

Dunphy is survived by his second wife, Lorna (nee Scowan), a stockbroker, whom he married in 1988, and by his daughter, Claire, from his marriage to Eileen (nee Murphy), which ended in divorce in 1985, as well as his granddaughters, Isabel and Olivia. A son, John, predeceased him.

Frank (Erskine Francis) Dunphy, artist manager, born November 27th, 1937; died August 23rd 2020