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When Damien Hirst claimed to have sold his diamond-encrusted skull for a staggering £50 million, questions were asked in the art world.
Who were the anonymous investors who had stumped up the full asking price? Why had they paid in cash, ensuring that there was no paper trail?
Now, Mr Hirst has provided the answers. He was one of the mystery buyers, after he became frustrated that nobody else wanted to snap up his masterpiece.
Moreover, the skull is languishing in a storage unit in London’s Hatton Garden - a far cry from the days when it was exhibited around the world and drew huge crowds.
In an interview with the New York Times, Mr Hirst confirmed that the skull continues to be owned by him, the White Cube gallery and other investors.
The artist, 56, said he had found it dispiriting that people would pay millions for a painting, yet did not see the value of a skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds.
“Everyone buys into the fact that paintings cost nothing to make, but can sell for an infinite amount. Why can they believe in that, but not the other?” he said.
When Mr Hirst unveiled the work, called For The Love of God, in June 2007, he claimed that the cost of materials was £15 million. Diamond experts disputed the figure and argued that it was significantly lower.
The £50 million price tag made it the most expensive work by a living artist.
The announcement of its sale was made just after the Art Newspaper claimed that Mr Hirst and White Cube had been trying to discount the price to £38 million.
“On the day we said they were negotiating a discount for buyers, suddenly, miraculously, it has been sold for £50 million cash,” Cristina Ruiz, the paper’s then editor, said at the time. “How likely is that?”
Mr Hirst produced the skull at the height of his career. The following year, an auction of his work at Sotheby’s in London set a new record for a sale dedicated to one artist. A total of 223 lots sold for £111 million, including a foal in formaldehyde which fetched £2.3 million.
However, the New York Times suggested that wealthy collectors and speculators are now more interested in younger names.
Mr Hirst has now moved into the world of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. Last year he launched The Currency, which comprised 10,000 A4-sized pieces of paper covered in the artist’s trademark spots - selling for $2,000 each.
Buyers had a choice either to keep a physical artwork, or an electronic token. These tokens can then be traded on cryptocurrency platforms.
Mr Hirst’s manager said in December that only five per cent of buyers had opted for the real thing.
Mr Hirst said the experiment had proved to be fascinating. “I’ve got about 2,000 people online constantly talking about The Currency,” he said. “It’s trading all the time: it goes up and down, it’s got value one minute, and not the next.
“It’s like being in a cult, and I’m the cult leader.”