Erotic auction at Sotheby’s: Does sex make art more commercial?

At a time when Facebook’s algorithms are blocking users who post Courbet’s “L’origine du monde” on their wall, despite it being visible to all at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris; at a time when visitors to the Metropolitan Museum in New York are calling for the removal of an artwork that is in their eyes too suggestive, painted by the great master of twentieth-century painting, the Swiss artist Balthus; at a time when European advertising agencies are placing white boxes over the bodies of nude men drawn by the Viennese expressionist Egon Schiele – for the second year running, the auction house Sotheby’s is holding an auction in London dedicated to that hot topic: sex.

 

 

Last year’s sale on 16 February 2017 was deemed a success by Sotheby’s, bringing in 5.2 million pounds for 107 lots which was over 2 million more than the initial estimation. This year, on the 15 February, 90 lots are being presented for a total value of 3.8 million pounds. The operation’s head of sale, Constantine Frangus, organized the auction in collaboration with the directors from all the departments. “With this sale we are trying to chart a little history of erotic art,” he explains. In times when morality seems to be making a comeback we might wonder what criteria an auction house would use in selecting the lots to feature in the catalogue that would be shipped all over the world. “We are not judges of morality,” the head of sale goes on to explain, “We are a group of specialists and we decide collectively what will feature in the catalogue and what won’t. We are trying to maintain a certain balance, so as not to present works that are too shocking. The collectors want beauty.”

 

 

 

For the French specialist on the subject, the great collector, artist and exhibitions curator Jean-Jacques Lebel (one of the exhibitions he organized was the “Picasso Erotique” show in 2001 in Paris and Barcelona), “It is a subject that has been fundamental to the history of mankind across all eras and civilizations. This sale contains too many mediocre items. That’s why I refused to provide Sotheby’s with any artworks.”

 

 

The weakest area of these themed auctions tends to be the Old Masters category. Private art dealer Nicolas Joly recalls how “on 1 February in New York, Sotheby’s sold – definitely to a Russian buyer – a rather disrobed Lucretia by Cranach (1472-1553) for 2.3 million euros, within the range of estimations. Sex is one of the classic motives for seduction in Old Masters paintings. It is, however, far less explicit than in modern and contemporary art.” Nicolas Joly points out that one of the active collectors in this field is in fact the contemporary artist Jeff Koons, who even has a very suggestive Fragonard painting in his possession. On 15 February a painting in the spirit of Fragonard is to be presented, by a certain Jean-Hughes Taraval (1729-1785), known for his history paintings. This depiction of a plump young woman lying in a state of undress on an unmade bed is estimated at 57 000 euros.

 

 

In the pantheon of the great artists of eroticism, Auguste Rodin, the giant of modern sculpture, is a prominent figure. “The subject is pervasive throughout his oeuvre, from his drawings to his multitude of female fauns,” observes curator at the Musée Rodin, Hélène Pinet. As it happens, on 15 February they will be presenting a curious bronze sculpture measuring 33 centimetres tall called “Faune à l’arc”, depicting an archer with feet in the shape of hooves carrying a naked creature on his shoulders (estimation: 34 000 euros). “It was through certain erotic works of his, such as ‘Iris, Messenger of the Gods’, that Rodin became a true twentieth-century sculptor,” observes the private art dealer from Geneva Marc Blondeau, who adds, “Sex is important in art when it goes beyond the simple subject of sex”. This is exemplified by the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), “who expresses an exceptional visual power, even with his most sexual subjects”.

 

 

 

The Sotheby’s sale is presenting four of his explicit photos in the category of male eroticism, estimated between 6800 and 9100 euros. It must, however, be emphasized that the highest prices for Mapplethorpe works are not for the most sexual subject matter. The record price for the artist, 563 000 euros, was obtained in 2017 for a famous image depicting him shortly before his death, posing beside a cane in the shape of a skull. Mapplethorpe was in New York in the 1980s and belonged to the same artistic circle as Andy Warhol (1928-1987). In 1976, 1977 then in 1983 the high priest of Pop Art produced an explicit series coyly entitled “Torso”, which could essentially be described as portraits of male genitalia. This is clearly not a star subject in the Warhol market. The Torsos, rarely seen at auction, sell for 100 000 dollars on average. But not one features in the sale on 15 February, which instead contains more trivial statements from the Pop artist on the subject, such as an elegant nude photo of Alba Clemente in black and white from around 1984, estimated at 3400 euros.

 

This themed sale would benefit from putting forward powerful pieces by great artists. Sotheby’s has missed the mark with this great subject.

 

 

On 15 February. www.sothebys.com

- February 8, 2018

Andy Warhol
Robert Mapplethorpe
Andy Warhol
Marlene Dumas
Gustav Klimt
Tracey Emin