How much should you pay for sex?
Erotica can be a good investment, finds John Windsor as he looks
at 16th-century to postmodern art
Sunday May 7, 2006 The Observer
When I first met Jamie Maclean, 11 years ago, he mopped his brow as he recalled hiring teams of art students, mostly women, to glue 13 pop-up penises into each of 320 copies of the first erotic pop-up book - David Russell's illustrated The Secret Carnival, about decadent frolics at the Venice Carnival.
The previous year, Maclean - who, as journalists seldom fail to relate, is an old Etonian whose father, Sir Fitzroy Maclean, was the inspiration for James Bond - had co-founded the Erotic Print Society, dedicated mainly to the reproduction of out-of-print classic erotic literature and illustrations.
Ten days ago, The Secret Carnival popped up again, at a Christie's auction in Paris of the first half of the biggest private collection of erotic literature. The Swiss collector, Gérard Nordmann, who owned Le Printemps department store in Paris, was a friend of Russell's. Lot 364, a de luxe copy of the book, fetched €1,140 (£793), more than three times its original retail price of £250 and a worthy contribution to the sale's total of £1,934,000.
Erotica as an investment? At the Paris sale, an anonymous buyer paid a world-record auction price for an erotic book - £227,000 for the sole surviving copy of Pietro Aretino's sonnets, Sonnetti Lussuriosi, published about 1527, with woodcuts of copulation in various positions.
But, despite the record takings and the fact that page after page of the sale catalogue showed graphically illustrated penetration, oral sex, orgies and unusual practices (journalists had to tick 'yes' on a postcard in order to receive their complimentary copy), the 150 bidders were mostly male and middle-aged.
Christie's Paris auctioneer, Christoph Auvermann, told me that whereas 19th- century albums of collected lithographs with 'fun scenes' had done well, anything scholarly or difficult - such as books by the Marquis de Sade, short on illustrations - had tended to stick.
The appeal of such old-school erotica may not last. Even fun lithographs are probably a dodgy investment. Taste and technology have radically changed the erotica being created for today's market.
It was those top-shelf magazines that did it. Parodoxically, they are becoming fewer - the erotically inclined can get that sort of thing at home, on the internet, much of it free. Compare Maclean's discreet vest-pocket sized catalogue of 11 years ago with his current website. The catalogue offered, for example, a limited reproduction edition with 12 colour lithographs of Alfred de Musset's Gamiani ou Deux Nuits d'Excès. Cynics derided such publications as 'posh porn'. The website offers, besides other things such as DVDs, sex aids and Maclean's new magazine, Sex, an album of photographs by Eric Wilkins, for 30 years a top-shelf photographer, whose 'sense of colour and composition are faultless' and whose 'rapport with his subjects is exceptional'. The Erotic Print Society's four earlier albums by Wilkins sold well. At £45 or £75 for a de luxe edition, my bet is that out-of-print Wilkins albums will hold their value better than 19th century lithographs.
Maclean points to the nostalgia value of Wilkins and other top-shelf photographers such as Trevor Watson. 'Distance and time lend enchantment,' he says. 'They were creative souls, each with their own unique signature.' And: 'I would always collect photographs.'
The top-shelf idiom has left its mark on fine art, photography and painting alike. The late painter Tom Wesselmann's Great American Nudes, with their gaping, lips-only faces, red nipples and bleached parts where a bikini used to be, are unsettling, bare-essentials caricatures of centrefold photography. The paintings of South African-born Marlene Dumas - also pastiches of soft-porn poses - are more subversive. Her Handy of 1992 shows a deliberately vulgar 'held-open' pose. But note the discomfort in the taught lips, shifty gaze and stretched fingers and the muddy colours contrasting with the ruthlessly spotlit white buttocks and vulnerably exposed, delicately painted pudenda. It's a male voyeur's nightmare. The German photographer Thomas Ruff makes a comparable comment by appropriating top-shelf images from the net and blurring them, thus simulating frenetic net-surfing and the illusory quality of the porn-merchant's medium.
These three are characteristic of what you might call post-modern erotica. Despite the exposed genitalia, arousal is not their primary aim. They toy with imagery, in much the same way as some well-paid women in the professions (can this be true?) have recently taken to lap-dancing as a hobby, flirting with the semiotics of exploitation as a feminist gesture of independence.
All three are expensive: Wesselmann and Ruff command at least £10,000 at auction. As for Dumas, Handy sold for £243,200 at Christie's London in June last year.
For erotic art that is a bit less edgy, and much less expensive, spend £15 (inc p&p) on a priced catalogue of Bloomsbury Book Auctions' latest erotica sale of 9 February and study what sold and at what prices. Auctions of erotica are actually rare because decent indecent stuff - whether visual art or novelty ceramics, ivories, bronzes, watches, vertu, antiquities - is hard to find. Bonhams held its last erotica auction in 1990. Bloomsbury is pressed to hold one a year.
Bloomsbury auctioneer Richard Oronowitz-Mercer says there are niche markets among the lots which are hard to predict, but the buyers - 'a very particular crowd' - know what they want and go for style and quality.
At these auctions there is always a chance of picking up a bargain out of context, such as the ancient Roman bronze fertility mount with phallus and testicles that went for £202 in February. It could have fetched about £1,000 at a London antiquities auction.
Victorian photographs with dull, unenterprising poses or a religious theme tend to sell badly. But genuinely erotic photographs, even those without exposed genitalia, are snapped up. Only two of the eight rather corny photographs by Marcel Meys found a buyer - one of them a 1920 nudist-style rear view of a young woman saluting the sun instead of copulating. She looks young, brimming with health, and has a beautiful bottom - which, upon closer inspection, I notice is about to be spiked by a twig. There really is no accounting for taste. She fetched £143.
Best tip in affordable contemporary erotic photography is Irish-born Bob Carlos Clarke, who died after being hit by a train in March. Both Maclean and Juliet Hacking, head of Christie's photography department, tip him as the new Helmut Newton (the German-Australian photographer, who also died a violent death when the car he was driving hit a wall two years ago).
Clarke never matched Newton's ultra-stylish Sie Kommen - four sassy-looking nude women marching in line towards camera, which is worth at least £30,000 at auction - but his fetishistic, often rubber-clad women of the Eighties and Nineties are already iconic. Two fetched £476 and £547 in the February sale and his more famous Tanya Catsuit - bare breasts, rubber pants - fetched £881 at Bloomsbury three years ago.
· Erotic Print Society: www.eroticprints.org
· Bloomsbury Book Auctions: www.bloomsbury-book-auct.com
· Christie's: www.christies.com