‘Love-boat’ bed star of first erotic art and design auction

Sotheby’s says lots depict ‘love and sex from antiquity to the present day’


Love – or rather passion and desire – is in the air at Sotheby’s in the lead-up to St Valentine’s Day. The international auction house is holding its first auction of erotic art and design on Thursday, February 16th, and viewing – likely to raise a few eyebrows – begins at the New Bond Street salerooms today. The auction, titled: ‘Erotic: Passion & Desire’ features 107 lots of furniture, design, fine art, photography and contemporary sculpture that encompass representations of love and sex from antiquity to the present day, “exploring themes from the beauty of desire to representations of the male nude, to the carnal act itself, stripped of metaphor”, according to the auction house, which has posted a warning on its website that reads: “ Please be advised that this sale includes images of nudity and images of a sexual nature which some viewers may consider indecent.”

Images of all the lots are available in the online catalogue. But not all lots are visually controversial.

Lot 22 is a late 19th-century carved mahogany bed – 9ft 11in wide – that was once the centrepiece of an up-market Parisian brothel and is estimated at £500,000-£815,000 (€600,000-€955,000), the “bateau-lit” (literally boat-bed) is in the shape of “a shell-shaped vessel” adorned with carved images of a mermaid and swans. The bed, says Sotheby’s, was part of the elaborate furnishings of ‘La Fleur Blanche’ , a “notorious and celebrated brothel at 6 Rue des Moulins ” that was frequented by “international high society”, including the artist Henri Toulouse, in whose biography the bed is described in detail. Apparently, following the closure of all brothels in Paris after the second World War, the contents of ‘La Fleur Blanche’ were dispersed at auction in 1946.

The sculpture ranges from ancient to modern. The former includes Lot 9, A Roman Marble Torso of Pan made in the 2nd century AD, which depicts “the ithyphallic goatlegged shepherd deity standing with his right leg forward, his hands bound behind his back, his now missing head formerly turned to his left”, estimated at £40,000-£60,000 (€47,700-€ 71,500). Pan, the Roman god of shepherds, had the hindquarters – and horns – of a goat, which didn’t prevent the nymphs from finding him deeply attractive.

The modern includes Lot 19, depicting the model Kate Moss as ‘Siren’ in gold-leaf covered bronze by the British sculptor Marc Quinn – the Maquette for Siren, dated 2008, “from an edition of 12, plus 6 artist’s proofs” is estimated at £70,000-£90,000 (€83,500-€108,000). Among the paintings and prints, Lot 41, Nudes at the Beach, estimated at £70,000-£100,000 (€83,500-€120,000) – dated 1930 and by the American artist Howard Chandler Christy ,seems positively chaste compared to some of the eye-popping images by French, Chinese, Japanese and Turkish artists in the auction.

Quite unexpectedly, there’s one Irish lot in the sale. Lot 91 is an oil-on-canvas painting titled In the Hammam by Patrick Hennessy, estimated at £12,000- £18,000 (€14,300-€21,500). Hennessy was a Cork-born artist who died in 1980. This depiction of male nudity is in startling contrast to the traditional Irish art images of whiskery, bawneen-clad Aran fishermen and dates from 1965 when the artist lived, and worked, in Morocco. The painting is being sold by an unnamed private Irish collector who loaned it last year to IMMA (the Irish Museum of Modern Art) for a retrospective exhibition of Hennessy’s work.

The auction also includes a selection of rare and collectable erotic photographs. Commenting on these for Sotheby’s, the author and critic Stephen Bayley made this interesting observation: “It’s often said the difference between pornography and erotica is simply a matter of lighting. Do you want forensic attention to sexual details or subtle evocation of mood? But there’s a difference of intention too. One involves coercion and disgrace, the other beauty and delight.”

The introduction to the catalogue was written by the journalist Rowan Pelling, one-time editor of the monthly literary erotic magazine, Erotic Review, who has written countless columns devoted to discussions around “sex”. Pelling writes vividly about the subject of erotica and her description of the aforementioned Lot 19 is especially compelling: “For a lightning bolt of pure, pagan sensuality, it’s hard to beat the Roman torso of Pan. History does not reveal the Roman hand that chiselled this muscle-bound, goat-legged, priapic god of all things untamed – but he was clearly an expert in inciting lust. It’s the rear view that entrances with this virile torso: the almost obscenely-pronounced buttocks and hands bound behind his back. Even supernatural powers have not saved him from bondage.” Eat your heart out, Jilly Cooper.

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