Did you know that YBA Damien Hirst produced the most expensive work of art by a living artist? For the Love of God is a platinum cast skull embellished with 8,601 diamonds and is Hirst’s ultimate memento mori.
When you hear the name Damien Hirst, you might think of sharks submerged in formaldehyde, enormous multi-coloured dot paintings, or even psychedelic butterfly arrangements. One thing you always know for certain is that with Hirst comes excess.
His diamond-encrusted skull For the Love of God is the ultimate expression of his material overindulgence. Here are 10 facts about Hirst’s most expensive and precious project to date.
Hirst has claimed in interviews that For the Love of God cost him a colossal £8 million to finance, but the final figure actually reached the even greater sum of £15 million. Taking 18 months to produce, the bejewelled skull was finally exhibited at White Cube and made international headlines due to its unbelievable price. To this day, For the Love of God is regarded as the most expensive contemporary artwork ever made.
It is hardly surprising that For the Love of God reached such a mind-boggling price as it is composed of two of the most precious and pricey materials on the market: platinum and crystal-clear diamonds. The entire skull is set with diamonds, weighing a tremendous 1,106.18 carats in total. Just the huge pink diamond at the front of the skull’s cranium weighs a whopping 52.4 carats. If this monumental project proves anything, it's that diamonds really are Damien Hirst’s best friend.
Despite claiming to have sold For the Love of God in 2007 for an incredible £50 million ($100 million), it has recently been confirmed that the piece never actually sold to rumoured private investors. Leading up to the sale of the piece, it was announced that Hirst himself would keep a large share in For the Love of God in order to continue its planned global tour. Perhaps this was part of the reason that the sale fell through, or maybe the price was simply too astronomical. Allegedly, the work still resides with White Cube, although neither they nor Hirst's production company would respond to questions about its current whereabouts.
Famously obsessed with taxidermy, Hirst turned his fixation onto human anatomy with For the Love of God. After purchasing a real human skull from Get Stuffed, a taxidermist in Islington, Hirst had the skull cast in platinum. However, instead of opting to replicate the original skull’s teeth in the same metal, Hirst had the actual teeth from the skull polished and inserted into the completed artwork to give an even more macabre effect.
While Hirst is indeed the brains behind his innovative ideas, he is renowned for delegating the actual production of his art to other people. For the Love of God is probably the most challenging commission that Hirst has ever imagined, and he entrusted Bentley & Skinner to craft the luxurious artwork-cum-jewel. The royally appointed jeweller has worked with the royal family for over a century, so it is only fitting that Hirst should turn to them for a bespoke artwork featuring crown-jewel-worthy diamonds.
The focal stone in the centre of the skull’s forehead was inspired by ‘Tharg the Mighty,’ a character in the British science fiction comic 2000 AD. The character had a similar circle on his forehead and, according to Hirst, “was like a kind of powerful God-like figure who controlled the universe.” Just as the fictional Tharg controlled the universe in this comic of Hirst’s childhood, Hirst made it his mission to change the world with his art, giving the piece an autobiographical element.
According to Hirst, this decadent work gained its title from a much more humble source. Whenever Hirst had “crazy ideas” his mother would groan the phrase “For the love of God, what are you going to do next!” The title of the work itself therefore parodies the absurdity of its unbelievable price tag.
Given Hirst’s preoccupation with the theme of death, it is no surprise that the Mexican celebration Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has proven to be particularly inspiring to him. When collecting visual inspiration from this immensely expensive project, Hirst visited the British Museum’s holdings of Aztec skulls decorated with an intricate array of turquoise and coral tiles.
Hirst once stated, “every artwork that has ever interested me has been about death.” While For the Love of God certainly encapsulates his preoccupation with mortality and death, it also follows the classic trope of the memento mori by making clear the inevitability of death. However, For the Love of God is not a pessimistic message of death. Hirst himself has described the work as having “a kind of quietness and a sort of transcendent feel to it,” as he uses the precious diamonds on the skull to make a mockery of mortality.
The year after For the Love of God was taken to auction, Hirst’s work was famously sold through Sotheby’s and fetched the art/business mogul a tremendous $201 million. The pricey diamond-encrusted skull itself is possibly the greatest manifestation of the commodity fetish in contemporary art. Defined by Marx as a state in which the production of a commodity is no longer important, but based solely on the exchange of money, Hirst definitely encourages his investors to champion material excess above all else. For him, the cost of producing this piece was almost insignificant. What mattered to Hirst, and what is always prevalent in his practice, is a hungry pursuit of profit and decadence.