From ancient Rome to Playboy: erotic art on the block

From antiquity to the present, Sotheby’s sale brings together a broad range of artworks

A 2,000-year-old Roman terracotta plaque depicting a brothel scene

A 2,000-year-old Roman terracotta plaque depicting a brothel scene

 

To coincide with the week of St Valentine’s Day, Sotheby’s is holding its second annual Erotic: Passion and Desire auction in London on Thursday (February 15th) which “brings together a broad range of artworks and objects which lay bare the history of human sexuality in all its guises” and provides an insight into how artists engaged with the tricky subject of erotic art.

The timeline ranges from antiquity to the present and the sheer diversity – from neo-classical sculpture to a Playboy magazine cover photo – with some eye-popping stuff along the way.

The oldest item, Lot 37, is a 2,000-year-old Roman terracotta plaque (depicting a brothel scene, estimated at £20,000-£30,000) which Sotheby’s said is testament to how representations of love and sex transcend time and proof “there is no form of modern sexual behaviour that has not already been perfected by our forebears”. The plaque shows three scenes from right to left, divided by architectural elements, with various encounters between men and women.

Depicting the human form is the most challenging subject in art and sculpture is its ultimate expression. The auction features numerous examples of ideal female and male beauty. A notable example is Lot 10, Phryné a white marble dated 1868 by the Italian sculptor Francesco Barzaghi (estimate £400,000-£600,000) depicting the ancient Greek prostitute who escaped a court sentence by baring her breasts before the judges who were so overwhelmed by her beauty that she was acquitted.

Fast-forward to the late 20th century, and Lot 18 is a limited edition version (signed and numbered 52 from a run of 200) of a very well-known photograph “Natassia Kinski and the Serpent, Los Angeles, California, 1981” by Richard Avedon estimated at £50,000-£70,000. Avedon, who died in 2004, was a renowned American fashion photographer and Kinski, a former teenage model in her native Germany, was, at the time, a Hollywood star. The image was taken during a two-hour photo-shoot commissioned by Vogue and depicts Kinski with a boa constrictor which, said Sotheby’s is “clearly referencing deeply-rooted concepts in classical art and mythology, most notoriously the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent that tricked Eve to take an apple from the Tree of Knowledge”.

Lot 74 is a copy of “Playboy Entertainment for Men Issue #1, [December 1953]” with Marilyn Monroe on the cover which Sotheby’s describes as “the most iconic and recognisable first issue of any magazine ever” with an estimate of £3,000-£5,000. This was published by Hugh Hefner and was not dated as Hefner was, reputedly, unsure there would be second. Some 50,000 copies immediately sold for a cover price of 50 cents each.

Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Playboy in 1953, estimate of £3,000-£5,000
Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Playboy in 1953, estimate of £3,000-£5,000

Male beauty

Lot 24, is a white marble “Bust of Antinous” by an unknown artist estimated at £100,000-£150,000. Described as superbly carved, the bust depicts Antinous, the lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who has been celebrated throughout history for his good looks, and widely regarded as the first gay icon. Antinous mysteriously drowned in the Nile in the year 130 AD at the age of 19, plunging the emperor into prolonged mourning. Hadrian established a city in Egypt, Antinoopolis, in the Grecian youth’s honour, and encouraged his veneration as a god. Numerous sculptures of Antinous were commissioned by the emperor and surviving examples can be found in major museums worldwide. This example was made in 18th century France “after the antique” by a clearly talented but unknown artist.

‘Natassia Kinski and the Serpent, Los Angeles, California, 1981’ by Richard Avedon is estimated at £50,000-£70,000
‘Natassia Kinski and the Serpent, Los Angeles, California, 1981’ by Richard Avedon is estimated at £50,000-£70,000

Lot 39 is a bronze sculpture entitled The Sluggard by 19th century English artist, Frederic, Lord Leighton. The original lifesize statue is in the Tate gallery in London, this is a bronze, 21-inch high version estimated at £18,000-£25,000. Originally titled Athlete awakening from sleeping, the sculpture was inspired when Leighton’s model, Giuseppe Valone, began slowly stretching after a long sitting. Leighton rapidly captured the pose in clay which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886. Sotheby’s said The Sluggard is one of the iconic masterpieces of 19th-century British sculpture, its languid pose capturing the essence of male beauty and the masculine ideal.”

The auction also features photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol and Gunter Sachs; paintings by Jack Vettriano; a neon sculpture by Tracey Emin and many more lots

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