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Provenance uncertain, but ancient human head draws plenty of bidders

Auctions often throw up some pretty unusual lots, none more so than the human head that went under the hammer in rural Ireland at the weekend. And this is not just any old human head: it is claimed to be that of St Vitalis of Assisi, the patron saint of genital diseases.

The auctioneer, Damien Matthews, joked from his podium that the head, which he described as "probably the most unusual item I will ever sell", had provoked interest from "all kinds of crackpots and oddballs".

Speaking earlier, Mr Matthews says the head was part of an annual fine art sale at Annesbrook, a country house best known for being rebuilt in preparation for a visit by George IV, then Prince Regent, who turned up drunk and didn't bother to go inside.

"The Anglo-Irish family who are selling it had an ancestor who brought it back from a grand tour in the 18th century," Mr Matthews said. "The current owners didn't want it frightening their kids in the hall and so it was pushed out to an outbuilding, which is where I came upon it.

The skull sits inside a carved wooden reliquary with a garland of equally dead flowers. Mr Matthews said interest had been strong, with 100 enquiries including a "well-known Irish rock star" and several Hollywood celebrities.

"I was a little repelled and shocked at first, but it's an object of beauty as well as being sad and macabre," he said.

In the end an unnamed bidder from Los Angeles paid €3,500 for the memento mori, well above the reserve of €800 and outbidding everyone in the room, including a couple in their 30s who settled instead for an elephant's foot.

Quite whose head is in the box may not be as simple as it seems, however. There are no official documents verifying that the cracked skull belongs to Vitalis of Assisi.

Reverend Dr Vincent Twomey, a theologian at the Divine Word missionaries in Maynooth, County Kildare, cast doubt on the head's provenance. "The relics claim to be those of a martyr but St Vitalis of Assisi wasn't a martyr, which raises all kinds of questions. There was a Vitalis in the fourth century who was, but that's quite a bit older," he said.

Rock musicians and Hollywood stars may have a taste for the macabre but the Catholic Church doesn't see the sale as legitimate.

"I'm quite upset by this," Dr Twomey said. "It's forbidden under canon law." Statute 1190 of the code of canon law of the Catholic church says: "It is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics."