It is difficult to describe Lot 475 in next weekend's two-day auction at Matthews Auctioneers in Oldcastle, Co Meath, without resorting to double-entendre or bawdy innuendo. "Interest is heating up" . . . ? "One item is expected to tickle the fancy" . . . ?
Yes, Lot 475 is a Victorian-era sex toy – an uncannily lifelike-looking phallus, intricately carved from ivory. Sandwiched in the brochure between a pair of antique miniature portraits and a set of decanter labels, the item is described in the brochure as an “antique carved ivory ladies companion in scarlet lined leather upholstered carry box with inset bevelled glass panel”.
"It is a beautiful piece, which comes from one of the well-known Anglo-Irish families," says auctioneer Damien Matthews.
"A family member found it in a drawer, and he put it in the auction for fun really. We believe the ivory dates back to the 1840s. This fellow, the original owner, was in India in the 1840s, where he shot himself an elephant, and brought the tusk home."
This was a very enlightened family, and this would have been a very loving gift from a husband to wife.
Matthews believes the piece was later carved in China between 1899 and 1901, where the man went to fight in the Boxer Uprising, a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian uprising. The level of detail in the lifelike carving is "incredible".
“The Chinese were famous for carving ivory, and the quality of carving is so good, I think that is where he would have had to have had it done. He would not have known that he was coming home, and would have wanted his wife to have this.
“This was a very enlightened family, and this would have been a very loving gift from a husband to wife. You can see that because the level of detail is incredible, down to the folds of the skin. There’s a heart carved at the base of it, where her finger would have been, and a receptacle in which she could keep a lock of his hair.”
The man did return, and the box was subsequently custom-made in Ireland. "The leather box is Irish. She would have got the box carved for it – there's a stamp on the lock with the name of an Irish locksmith," Matthews says.
The notion that sex toys have been in use since Victorian times may come as a surprise to those of us who thought that it was Sex and the City in the 1990s that popularised the vibrator – along with Cosmopolitans and Manolo Blahniks. In fact, the "ladies companion" has been around a lot longer than that.
Because the very idea of female sexual arousal was unthinkable in Victorian times, so the theory goes, the condition – and its cure – were not seen as sexual.
The view often put forward, and popularised by the 2011 film Hysteria, is that vibrators were invented by Victorian doctors who found themselves in danger of developing repetitive strain injury from repeated use of their fingers to massage stressed, anxious, irritable or premenstrual ladies to "hysterical paroxysm" – a state we might better recognise as orgasm.
Though sex toys and erotica have been around in one form or another since Victorian times, Irish examples of any kind are rare
Their invention was regarded as a proper medical device, no more erotic than a stethoscope. Because the very idea of female sexual arousal was unthinkable in Victorian times, so the theory goes, the condition – and its cure – were not seen as sexual.
The item on sale at Oldcastle seems to challenge at least that element of this narrative. It is very definitely phallic in shape, carefully carved, and unequivocally sexual in nature – nothing like the bulky, medicalised, steam-powered massage-type instruments that appeared in the 1870s, or the "massager" patented a decade later by Dr J Mortimer Granville.
But though sex toys and erotica have been around in one form or another since Victorian times, Irish examples of any kind are rare. In 2012, a collection of 324 glass plates by the photographer Henry Pakenham Mahon, was uncovered at Strokestown Park demesne in Co Roscommon, including several explicit images of live models, cartoons, and classic nude paintings.
“This piece is a great rarity,” says Matthews. “I’ve been at this 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. You do get the Victorian era massagers every so often that come up for auction, but nothing like this.
“You’ve got to remember in Victorian times, the amount of people that could afford to indulge or create something like this was tiny. Ninety nine per cent of the country were trying to get by, so there were perhaps 400 or 500 families in the country with those kind of means. It’s not just a piece of erotica – it’s a work of art, and a fascinating piece of social history.”
Matthews says there has been considerable interest in the piece, and that it could go to a museum of erotica, to a collector of antique ivory or Victorian art. The guide price is set at €500-€800.