How Sotheby's convinced timid clients to sex up their artworks

Tuesday , February 13, 2018 - 9:30 AM

James Tarmy

(c) 2018, Bloomberg.

Men have painted naked women for as long as paint has existed. Well before that, their predecessors were using hammers and chisels to carve erotic nudes of both genders out of marble.

The point of these gauzy oils of dancing nymphs and stone statues of recumbent shepherds has always been to put a respectable, if not unapologetic, face on lust: This is not pornography, its beholders can argue. It is art with a capital A, and that painting is not smut, it’s an allegory.

As a society, we accept this narrative, both out of convenience and because, oftentimes, it’s true. (Michelangelo’s David, for instance, is a work of art and a work of eros.)

So when Sotheby’s held its inaugural Erotic sale last year to coincide with Valentine’s Day, it felt a little transgressive-not so much telling the emperor he had no clothes as telling the emperor with no clothes that he was, in fact, a sex symbol.

The 2017 auction featured art by such 20th century giants as Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud, Egon Schiele, Anton Gormley, and Aristide Maillol, mixed with antiquities such as a 2nd century Roman marble torso of Pan. To the surprise of basically everyone (even, it seemed, the auction house), the sale went gangbusters, selling for more than a million pounds above its high estimate.

“We were planning to hold them every other year,” says Constantine Frangos, the specialist who organized the sale. “But we had so many demands, from both buyers and sellers, that we put together a second auction a year later.”

Frangos notes that “The subtitle of the sale is ‘Passion and Desire,‘ so not all of the objects in the sale represent actual acts.” Instead, he says, “it represents admiration of the human form.”

That’s absolutely true, but that didn’t mean it was going to be easy to get consigners to contribute to a sale that would market its contents-19th century nudes, tasteful black and white photographs, and treasured antiquities-as leaving bidders “hot under the collar.” (Sotheby’s language, not ours.)

“Most clients were very open to the idea,” says Frangos. The sale offers a fairly unique platform to showcase objects that might otherwise be overshadowed by comparably flashier artworks. “It gives [the work] a broader range of exposure,” he says.

Under normal circumstances, in other words, a Roman terracotta plaque with a brothel scene from the 1st century AD (estimate: 20,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds, or $27,700 to $41,500) might not attract much attention. But when it’s displayed alongside an ink drawing of a gay orgy by Pavel Tchelitchew (2,000 pounds to 3,000 pounds) and a brush-and-ink sex scene by Picasso (250,000 to 350,000 pounds), that plaque might take on a very different sheen. “If you look at the coverage of certain works-if they were put in another sale, they would be lost,” Frangos says. “Here, they’re highlighted.”

The Erotic sale is thus the latest example of the “cross-category” concept auction houses have pushed, in recent years, in an effort to reinvigorate sleepier segments of the art market. The nudes get the collectors through the door, and the dramatic price disparity between old art and new keeps the checkbooks open. What consignor could say no?

Some of the artworks included in this sale, which will take place on Feb. 15 at Sotheby’s London headquarters, seem like obvious candidates for an Erotic sale. There’s a lovely pencil-on-paper drawing by Gustav Klimt of a couple, which carries an estimate of 40,000 pounds to 60,000 pounds. There’s also a series of nudes by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe depicting black men in various states of sexual excitement. (One work, Eric, from 1980, carries an estimate of 7,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds.)

Photos by Thomas Ruff and paintings by George Grosz depict explicit sex acts; even a photograph by Man Ray of two wooden dolls, Mr. and Mrs. Woodman, estimated at 30,000 pounds to 50,000 pounds, manages to be surprisingly graphic.

“We found that the extremely shocking ones get a lot of publicity,” Frangos says. “But they aren’t the best sellers.”

If that’s the case, then it’s a safe bet that a bust of Venus by Yves Klein (50,000 pounds to 70,000 pounds) will do well, as will a comparatively tame painting by Jack Vettriano, Models in the Studio, (40,000 pounds to 60,000 pounds) which has the distinction of being the sole artwork in the sale whose subjects are fully clothed.

Consignors of the more modest works were enthusiastic about their inclusion. “Whatever we asked for, pretty much, clients were convinced to put in the sale,” Frangos says.

On the face of it, this is a daring move by both the consignors and the auction house, but the sale hits on a truth as old as art itself: Sex sells. “It was the most-clicked e-catalog last year,” Frangos says.

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