The mystery of the £50m skull: Is Hirst's record sale all it seems?

The revelation that Damien Hirst bought a share of his most expensive work is the talk of the art market. By David Connet

From pickled sharks and embalmed sheep to multi-million pound pill cabinets, British artist Damien Hirst has divided opinion from the very first. There has, though, seldom been as much mystery about one of his sales as there has been over the mind-boggling £50m disposal of his diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God.

First, there is the issue of just who makes up the "consortium of businessmen" that has bought it "as an investment". They are staying well below the parapet.

Then, there is the issue of Hirst's involvement in that consortium. And there is the issue of the price paid. Was it really the £50m in cash that Hirst's manager claims?

The sale of the skull, a platinum cast of a 35-year-old 18th-century man's skull, covered in more than 8,600 diamonds, which cost an estimated £15m, was announced by London's White Cube gallery.

By any standards, it has been an extraordinary summer for the 42-year-old artist. First, came a £9.6m sale of Lullaby Spring, a medical cabinet with pills on razor blades at auction, itself a record for a living artist.

Then came his White Cube exhibition, hailed as the "most lucrative in the galleries' history", which sold out and added millions more to Hirst's personal fortune, estimated at £130m.

But while a record-breaking sale might be viewed as an occasion for celebration, the reaction in the art world has been strangely sceptical.

The Art Newspaper, respected for its authoritative reporting, quoted unnamed trade sources saying the skull's price had dropped to £38m during earlier negotiations as Hirst struggled to sell his piece.His business manager, Frank Dunphy, categorically denied the claim.

One report yesterday suggested that a potential buyer, who subsequently dropped out, was offered a 10 per cent discount on the asking price.

Cristina Ruiz, editor of The Art Newspaper, who revealed the negotiations, said: "When works of art are sold privately it is extremely difficult to verify the actual price paid. Dealers and artists naturally have an interest in publicising the highest figures discussed during any negotiations. We will probably never know how much it will sell for."

A Californian dealer, Richard Polsky, said: "This is all about investment, not about art collecting. This sale keeps Hirst in the news, reinforces the demand for his work and makes everyone who spent money at the White Cube feel good about their investment."

As well as some scepticism about the details of the sale, there is concern in the art world that the market may be about to turn as uncertainty hits the world's financial markets.

Observers say hedge fund financiers, among the biggest art buyers in recent years – Steve Cohen of SAC Capital bought Hirst's shark in formaldehyde in 2004 for a reported $8m – are likely to bow out following the recent financial market turmoil.

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