Is this the jewel in the crown of Britart?

Damien Hirst's latest work, aextraordinary diamond-encrusted platinum skull, could be yours for €74 million, writes Rosita Boland…

Damien Hirst's latest work, aextraordinary diamond-encrusted platinum skull, could be yours for €74 million, writes Rosita Boland

For the love of God. Previously a phrase used to express annoyance on a scale of mild to middling, it now has a whole new resonance as the title of Damien Hirst's most extravagant artwork yet. For the Love of Godis the name given to an extraordinary diamond-encrusted platinum skull, currently the showpiece exhibit in his Beyond Belief show at London's White Cube gallery and on sale for £50 million (€74 million). It's the most expensive piece of artwork for sale by a living artist. And according to Jane Eckett, a director of Whyte's, the Irish fine art auctioneers, "There are half a dozen private collectors in Ireland who have the sufficient means to buy this work - although I can't see them any of them going for it."

"There are certainly Damien Hirst buyers in Ireland," says Stuart Cole, director of Adam's, another fine art auction house in Dublin. "And there are possibly a couple of private collectors who could go all out and buy this skull - there's certainly the wealth here for it. Investing in contemporary art is becoming a global trend: it is outselling Impressionist art, for instance."

There are several other pieces on display in Hirst's Beyond Belief show, including a silver skeleton of a baby, but unsurprisingly, it's the skull that has been hoovering up all the media attention. There are 8,601 "ethically sourced" diamonds in the piece, one of which is so large - 52.5 carats - that it has its own name, the Skull Star Diamond. The skull itself is a platinum cast of a real skull, bought by Hirst from a London dealer, and is thought to be of an 18th-century man who died when he was in his 30s. His remarkably well-preserved teeth - possibly the reason why that particular specimen was chosen - were removed and placed in the platinum cast. The original skull is now in Hirst's own house, complete with a new replacement set of gold teeth.


British art critics seem to perpetually love Hirst, and this week they have been ransacking their thesaurus to find ever more elevated terms of praise. Virtually every review of the skull in the British media has been hugely enthusiastic, with some bordering on the sycophantic. Waldemar Januszczak of the Sunday Timesgushed: "I have just been to heaven . . . Others will be tempted to faint with ecstasy at the sight of this thing, and nobody should blame them for it, because we are dealing here with a cosmic wonder . . . I've done many exciting things in my long watch as an art critic, but I've never done anything quite so goosebump-inducing as going one-on-one with this fabulously unnerving masterpiece in diamonds."

The Guardian'sJonathan Jones said: "The perfect artwork for an age of massive wealth and escalating art prices; a ridiculous pop object in so many ways. Is it vulgar? Oh yes, and that is what makes it great. So much art nowadays aspires to a pseudo-seriousness, shrouding its essential mediocrity in an an anthropological appeal to a human sense of vulnerability . . . You just can't argue with this work of art. You can't fault it . . . Hirst truly has created an exceptional object. It is not merely an expensive work of art, but a great one."

And Richard Dorment wrote in the Daily Telegraph: "If anyone but Hirst had made this curious object, we would be struck by its vulgarity. It looks like the kind of thing Asprey or Harrods might sell to credulous visitors from the oil states with unlimited amounts of money to spend, little taste, and no knowledge of art . . . I can't remember another art work that so perfectly embodies the cynicism and ambivalence successful artists must feel towards those who promote and collect their work."

Bristol-born Hirst (42), whose estimated worth is now about €145 million, and who is the starriest of all the so-called Britart set, was making news before he even graduated from his art course in Goldsmiths, part of the University of London. In July 1988, when Hirst was in his second year there, he organised a student group show, Freeze, in an empty building in the London Docklands. Freeze was seen by both Nicholas Serota, now the director of the Tate network of galleries, and global advertising agent and art collector Charles Saatchi.

Two years later, when Saatchi turned up at Gambler, a show Hirst had put together with some of his contemporaries, he reportedly stepped out of his green Rolls Royce, clapped his incredulous eyes on Hirst's first major trademark animal installion, and bought it within minutes. A Thousand Yearsdisplayed a rotting cow's head in a glass case, with flies and maggots feeding on it. After that, Saatchi bought and promoted Hirst's work, as he was also to do with Tracey Emin. The fact that Saatchi ran a global advertising agency dovetailed very nicely into promoting the work of those Young British Artists (YBAs) he supported by buying, thus contributing to their ever-increasing profile and prices.

After buying A Thousand Years, Saatchi offered to fund whatever work Hirst wanted to make. As a result, in 1992 Hirst's work was showcased at the first YBAs exhibition in the Saatchi Gallery. The piece was the now-famous shark in formaldehyde, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and Saatchi bought it for £50,000.

After that, Hirst's profile kept growing and growing. He represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1993, had his first solo show in the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 1996, and was represented at the Sensation exhibition in the establishment gallery of the Royal Academy in London in 1997. He lives now in a huge old rundown country house, Toddington Manor, in Gloucestershire, and seems to have left behind his much-publicised days of drugs and drinking for a calmer family life with his American partner, Maia Norman, with whom he has three sons, Connor, Cassius and Cyrus.

Hirst has invested in his own collection of modern art, including works by fellow YBA Sarah Lucas, and the kitsch- obsessed ironic artist Jeff Koons. He also became co-owner of a couple of restaurants, the best-known of them Pharmacy in Notting Hill, which was filled with his medically-themed work. A business failure, it closed in September 2003. However, since Hirst had cannily only leased his work to Pharmacy, which by then had its own profile and identity - blanket media coverage again - he was able to sell that work at Sotheby's for more than £11 million (€16 million).

He did not endear himself to Americans in 2002 by describing the 9/11 attack in a BBC interview online as "kind of like an artwork in its own right". He had to issue a public apology a week later through Saatchi. Two years later he parted company with the Saatchi Gallery, apparently due to unspecified disagreements about how and where his work was being sold.

Damien Hirst now employs 65 people. What do they all do? Well, some of them work making Damien Hirst pieces of artwork. Among his trademark works are his spot paintings - literally paintings of bright spots of colour. He's said he only painted five of them himself because "I couldn't be fucking arsed doing it". In an interview he gave to the Guardian in 1999, he told the journalist he had assistants who had painted about 300 spot paintings. "Hirst tells the assistants what size he wants the paintings to be and they just get on with it."

Hirst has explained that he thinks the real creative act is the idea, not the execution of it, and that, as the person who has the idea - be it spot paintings or a diamond skull - he is therefore the artist of it, even if he doesn't actually make it himself.

He didn't make For the Love of Godeither: that was done by Bond Street jewellers Bentley & Skinner, who have said it is the largest diamond commission they've received since making the crown jewels. Presumably this makes Hirst the current royalty of Britart artists. He's certainly as rich as Croesus.