Artist Damien Hirst’s recent reported sale of a diamond-encrusted skull for $100 million to an investment group made him the world’s priciest living artist. But is all that glitters sold? Hirst turns out to be one of his own investors, an arrangement that leaves the actual price of the skull, titled For the Love of God, secret. (Bloomberg.com, which broke the news of the sale on August 29, was skeptical of the price from the beginning and attributed it to Hirst’s manager—but the $100 million hit headlines around the world.) Is Hirst manipulating the market for his own work?
As for who bought the sculpture, that’s as secret as the price, which some art insiders peg as nearer to a still-sparkling $75 million. Hirst’s biggest believers in the past have included private Swiss art-investment group Pisces, led by Phillips de Pury chairman Simon de Pury; London art dealer Helly Nahmad, whose family is among the world’s leading art buyers; and hedge-funder Steve Cohen. His own Hirst, the embalmed shark titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, strangely went on view at the Metropolitan Museum the week of the skull’s sale. Singer George Michael and his partner, Dallas art dealer Kenny Goss, were also rumored buyers, as they bought Hirst’s St. Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, a black calf pierced by arrows, from the same exhibition at London’s White Cube Gallery. Goss had said they had “considered” buying the skull.
Hirst has been a big investor of his own work in the past, buying back some of his art from British ad magnate Charles Saatchi in 2003 rather than see it on the auction block (“I’m not Charles Saatchi’s barrel-organ monkey,” he noted at the time). This year, he raised more than enough money from the sales of his Birth and Biopsy series at White Cube to cover his stake in the sculpture. In any case, the timing couldn’t have been better: News of the sale came just as he was about to introduce a line of Levi’s clothing at a fashion show Saturday night at Larry Gagosian’s Chelsea gallery. Coming down the runway: a $4,000 pair of jeans with skulls made of Swarovski crystals.