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By Claudio Lavanga

VENICE — Millionaire artist Damien Hirst has come to Venice early with an exhibit staged especially for this mysterious and watery city.

NBC News was given special access to the exhibition, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” featuring more than 180 statutes opening Sunday. According to curators, the collection is made up of a hoard of treasures retrieved from the Apistos, an ancient ship that sunk off the coast of Africa some 2,000 years ago.

Underwater footage and photos of the retrieval operation, which Hirst claims he funded, are integral elements of the exhibition.

"The Severed Head of Medusa"Claudio Lavanga for NBC News

And yet the backstory is Apistos — Greek for “unbelievable” — as the name of the ship and exhibition suggests.

Alongside statues of mythical and mystical creatures, inspired by the ancient worlds of Greece and Mespotamia, stand figures from a more recent era — Goofy, Mickey Mouse, an S&M mask, and even a statue of Hirst himself, named “The Collector,” can all be found.

The British artist will open his new show weeks before the art world descends upon the Italian city for the international Biennale art exhibition. The exhibit being held in two Venetian Museums, Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, is monumental.

"Demon with a Bowl," the centerpiece in the foyer of Palazzo Grassi, is 60-feet tall and towers through all three of the 18th century Palazzo's floors.

The theme of reality versus unreality runs consciously throughout.

“Somewhere between lies and truth, lies the truth,” curator Elena Geuna told NBC News. "It’s up to each one of us to decide what to decide: is it true, or was it made now?”

While the contents remain largely unknown, it has not escaped controversy. Hirst, who is known for his use of dead animals in his art, has often been criticized by animal rights groups and this show is no different.

The animal rights group, Centopercentoanimalisti, described it as “shameful” as they spread what they said was 88 pounds of dung in front of the Palazzo Grassi, according to local press.

Dung was placed outside the Palazzo Grassi in protest of Damien Hirst's latest exhibition. The sign reads "Damien Hirst go home! Catch this work of art!"Courtesy 100% Animalisti