Back out of the vault: secret life of the skull

Hirst's £50m creation is on display again. But where for the love of God has it been hiding?

With a 2007 price tag of £50m it was the most expensive work ever offered for sale by a living artist.

But for most of its short existence For the Love of God, Damien Hirst's controversial platinum-plated, diamond-encrusted human skull, has languished unseen in a secret high-security vault. Too costly to go on show, it has become a prisoner of its own outlandish worth.

For the next five months however art lovers and devotees of the "super-bling" culture it came to represent will be given the chance to enjoy a rare audience with the piece at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence for the relatively bargain basement price of €10 (£8.50). There it will be attended 24 hours a day by three armed guards. So far the only challenge has come from the critics who have taken issue with the city's culture councillor Giuliano da Empoli over his decision to bring the piece to Florence, where 230,000 people are expected to see it.

One prominent opponent, the critic Achille Bonito Oliva, complained that the skull would "corrupt the taste of the public". But Mr Da Empoli praised the artist and said the exhibition was "not costing the city a lira". Florence's Mayor Matteo Renzi said he too was unfazed by sniping. "In fact I can't recall a time when Florence wasn't at the centre of controversy, beginning with the witch-hunt against Dante Alighieri. I only know that inside one of our most precious places will be exhibited one of the most important works in contemporary art. That some people might not like it as a matter of personal taste is not disputed. But this is an important attempt to connect Florence with the contemporary world," he said.

Until this week For the Love of God had only been displayed twice in public before. In 2007, it was unveiled to a startled world at the White Cube gallery in London.

The following year it received a second outing at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. On both occasions it was surrounded by considerable security and plans to take it on a global tour taking in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the British Museum in London and the Far East were shelved. Hopes raised in 2009 that it might find a home in London also appear to have been dashed. All costs for the current exhibition – including insurance, security, transportation and installation fees – are being met by Arthemisia Group, a commercial company that organises shows in Italy. Neither Hirst nor his London gallery White Cube will receive a fee according to Arthemisia which has even promised to pay the city €700,000 based on projected ticket sales.

Hirst described his unease at his most notorious work being shut away for so long when news of the Italian show was announced. "You feel like your life is ticking away while it's in the vault. You think objects like that were made in the past by emperors and kings and things like that. You don't want them in vaults you want them out there so people can see them," Hirst told CNN.

The world's richest living artist has admitted that it was "crazy" to have made an object that he couldn't keep in his own house. Yesterday, White Cube refused to discuss point blank where the skull had been residing. The skull was bought two months after it was first displayed by a consortium of investors said to include the Ukrainian collector Victor Pinchuk, as well as the White Cube's Jay Jopling and Hirst himself, who retained a stake.

The New York-based art collector Alberto Mugrabi, whose family already owns 110 Hirst originals, is said to have offered $35m (£22m) for the skull – still a considerable mark up on the £14m it is estimated to have cost to buy the raw materials of 8,601 ethically sourced diamonds (including one large pink rock costing £4m), the platinum and 18th-century skull. A reported offer by the singer George Michael also came to naught.

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