Bare facts behind those naked ladies: These nudes troubled and excited the Victorians. Now they trouble and excite Middle-Easterners to buy, buy, buy, says John Windsor

Lightly draped, the Victorian nude has entered the world of Islam. The eyes of wealthy Middle Eastern collectors viewing next week's Victorian picture sales at Sotheby's and Christie's will stray from stallions and happy families towards more piquant images, such as Harold Piffard's The Sleeping Model - a young woman reclining in transparent harem trousers.

Victorian pictures have been leading the picture market out of recession, but Middle Easterners are the only serious collectors of oil paintings of the Victorian nude. Britain's less wealthy students of the female form make do with prints.

Middle Eastern taste is specific: nipples may be shown but only through diaphanous drapery, crotches should be opaquely draped. Nothing too blatant.

Islamic tradition discourages depiction not just of the nude but of the human figure itself. Although the Koran contains no specific prohibition, Middle Easterners take the precaution of commissioning London dealers to bid for them. No Muslim buyers' names appear against nude Victorian lots in auction records, not even 'Middle East buyer': just 'London dealer' or 'Anonymous'. No one need know.

The notion, reinforced by religious strictures, that sex should be private not public, is common to both Islamic and Victorian cultures.

Unsurprisingly, their taste in the art of the nude coincides.

Middle-class Victorians, even the clergy, found no offence in nudity so long as paintings and statues observed the convention of a classical or mythological setting. The Elgin marbles, first shown here in 1807, and the Venus de Milo, discovered in 1820, formed models for nude sculpture and painting that inspired dreams of classical perfection rather than perfumed bedrooms.

The clergy were naively unmoved by the classical bondage statuary at the Great Exhibition of 1851 - example: nude slave girl in chains. But they did get hot under the dog collar when artists started painting nudes life-size and life-like.

In those days, the same members of the working class who frolicked naked in the sea, even at Eastbourne, provoking letters to the Times from outraged worthies, took to sniggering at realistic paintings of nudes in newly-built municipal galleries. Sexual licence below stairs - where would it end?

Two of Victorian art's most distinguished and larger-than-life characters, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Sir Edward Poynter, stirred hornets' nests by painting realistic life-size nudes. Alma-Tadema's The Sculptor's Model (1877), undraped apart from a headband, pubescent, fully frontal, yet observing the ancient Greek convention of a bald, unclefted pubic triangle, drew this from the then Bishop of Carlisle: 'old masters, it might be assumed, knew no better . . . but for a living artist to exhibit a life-size, life-like, almost photographic representation of a beautiful naked woman strikes my inartistic mind as somewhat, if not very, mischievous'. Unrepentant, Alma-Tadema responded by painting a soiled smock over the sculptor's toga.

Victorian propriety felt similarly threatened by Sir Edward Poynter's Diadumine (1885), life-sized and posed similarly to Alma-Tadema's model, but in a classical bathroom. Poynter protested the figure was based on the Esquiline Venus, adding with ill-concealed prurience that he had intended to 'give some idea of what the bathroom of a lovely Greek or Roman girl might be'.

No buyer would touch it, just as no Middle Eastern buyer would touch it today. But when Poynter added drapery, leaving only one breast exposed, it found a buyer in the United States. In 1989 it fetched pounds 99,000 at Sotheby's, less than its pounds 100,000-pounds 150,000 estimate. The Sculptor's Model, despite its importance in the art history of the nude, has had a disastrous recent saleroom record - indicating that, as yet, no Western collectors of Victorian nude paintings have emerged to compete for it. (It is too blatant for Middle Eastern taste.) The painting has been for sale - and left unsold - three times at Christie's since being bought for pounds 121,000 there in 1981, a frequency that could be called promiscuous.

It last failed to lure a punter in New York in February.

Tongue-in-cheek, Simon Taylor, Sotheby's Victorian picture specialist, called the picture 'over-exposed'. London dealer Rupert Maas explained that buyers were still mainly after Alma-Tadema's best and most characteristic paintings (not necessarily nudes) with their great vistas and skilful portrayal of marble. Top auction price for Alma- Tadema is last year's pounds 1.6m, paid anonymously at Christie's for The Roses of Heliogabalus, showing a debauched Roman battle of rose petals.

Would-be speculators in the genre should note that Piffard's identical version of The Sleeping Model, named The Harem Girl at Christie's South Kensington last month, made pounds 3,080, well above pounds 1,000-pounds 1,500 estimate. Sotheby's version, though the canvas is scratched and loose on its stretcher, is more cannily estimated at pounds 4,000-pounds 6,000.

Sotheby's experts reckon they know who will be after it.

An artist particularly admired in the Middle East for his skill in showing anatomical detail looming through flimsy silk is John Godward (1861-1922).

Sotheby's has estimated a saffron-robed damsel of his, in sunny clime with cypress trees, at pounds 30,000-pounds 40,000.

Islamic law is probably strictest in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Iran. The pounds 13m de Kooning abstract expressionist nude given by Iran in July in exchange for the coveted Houghton 16th-century Persian manuscript, Epic of the Kings, had been under lock and key in the storerooms of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran since the Shah fled in 1979. (It shared its incarceration with other unacceptable examples of nude Western art - including a voluptuous late Renoir bather and some pop-art nudes by Tom Wesselman.) But in Istanbul, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Rabat, art students draw nudes at life classes and expect to see pictures of undraped females in museums and art galleries.

It is nevertheless unlikely that many Victorian nudes bought in London find their way to any part of the Middle East. Instead, they are hung in inner sanctums in mansions in London, Geneva or New York.

The three languorous nudes in Poynter's The Cave of the Storm Nymphs, however - estimated pounds 500,000-pounds 700,000 at Sotheby's next week - are making a mint at the game. They fetched 3,500 guineas (pounds 3,518) at auction in 1969, pounds 198,000 in 1981 and pounds 440,000 in 1988. The painting is quintessential Poynter, with fluid movement and glowing, realistic flesh tones. It provocatively combines images of sex and money and hints at another sexual variation that appeared after bondage - male submission to predatory women.

The time to buy Victorian nudes was around 1960, when all things Victorian were reviled and a nude by Lord Leighton, the bon-vivant who so awed the young Poynter, could be had for pounds 200.

Where to start collecting? The prolific William Etty, hailed as 'the English Titian' in 1821 for his nude Cleopatra, was obsessed with naked women, attending life classes almost daily to the end of his life. His nudes are sensual, the paint laid on with a full brush, and seldom classical. He was accused of indecency.

A batch of eight of his female and male nudes fetched between pounds 385 and pounds 2,420 each at Christie's South Kensington last month. Part of his charm is that, despite a lifetime ogling female nudity, he never did learn to draw in proportion. Look out for his trademark: the sagging off-side buttock.

Victorian picture sales: Sotheby's, Wednesday 10.30am (071-493 8080), Christie's, Friday 10.30am (071-839 9060).

(Photographs omitted)