Spending: The British keep their heads down: Auction houses are giving up sales of erotica in this country, where we prefer our garish nudes hidden inside pocket watches. John Windsor laments the passing of an era

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The Independent Online
THE great British erotica auction is in decline. Last month's sell-out at Christie's South Kensington of the erotic engravings of the fin de siecle Belgian artist Felicien Rops was quite possibly the last auction of its kind to be held in this country. Only one in five of those present to see off this private collection was British; the rest were Continentals. Bonhams, the only British auction house to hold annual erotica sales, ceased doing so in 1990 after five years.

Small wonder that the auction houses are not keen when the peculiar British taste in erotica is considered: no sex, please, unless it is furtive or kinky.

In the market for Japanese prints, for example, sex can actually bring the price of an artist's work down. According to Sotheby's, collectors will pay pounds 10,000 or more for a fully clothed bust portrait by artists of the early 18th-century Katsukawa school such as Utamaro or Haronobu, but an erotic scene by the same artists will raise only pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000.

By contrast, pocket watches with lids concealing miniature paintings of erotic encounters, often featuring garishly coloured genitals, are worth double their non-erotic counterparts. An erotic quarter-hour repeating automaton of 1810 might fetch pounds 6,000; non-erotic, pounds 2,500-pounds 3,000. As for kinkiness, the current dominatrice of the British erotic-art market is, no, not Madonna but casts of an art deco bronze which is not so much flagrante as flagellante. Bruno Zach's figure, The Riding Crop, is a haughty young woman with high heels, black stockings and a tight chemise pulled down to reveal pointed breasts. She holds a riding crop behind her back - the thinking man's Miss Whiplash.

A version of her was cover-girl of a coffee-table book, Erotic Antiques, in 1990. Last October she was cover-girl for Phillips's decorative arts sale; in December, on the cover of Christie's South Kensington's decorative arts catalogue, there she was again. She sold for pounds 11,550 in December and pounds 13,200 in October.

One of the difficulties of auctioning erotica in Britain is that there is so little of it. In the four months from October last year, London and provincial auction houses offered only 42 lots catalogued as 'erotic' (understood by the trade as permitting joined genitals, but without animals, children or cruelty). Duncan Chilcott, organiser of Bonhams's last two erotica sales, said: 'Our sales did bring whole collections on to the market. But in the end it took so many hours to put together as a sale that it was no longer commercial. Erotica sales are now as dead as the dodo.'

Five years ago, Bonhams' ground-breaking sale in its prestigious Knightsbridge salerooms attracted press cameramen from Australia and Brazil and enlivened bidders' libido by serving wine. The last sale, in downmarket Chelsea, had no wine, precious few cameras, and was 40 per cent unsold.

The Continentals who, unlike the British, have a tradition of erotic art still flock to erotica auctions in Paris and Amsterdam. 'They are much more up- front about it,' Mr Chilcott said.

Bonhams did cheekily catalogue as 'English School' six clumsy anonymous pencil-and-crayon drawings with titles like Piers treated Miss Betty to Cunnilingus. They made between pounds 110 and pounds 150 each, within estimate. A series of coloured prints including The Gallop (sex on horseback) were catalogued 'After Thomas Rowlandson' after being denounced as fakes. They made pounds 22-pounds 55 each.

Genuine erotica by names as big as Rowlandson is capable of brazening its way into any general picture sale, bold as brass. But no such sale would allow naff erotica of the Miss Betty variety to expose itself. Which is why Bonhams, tickled by some unacceptably risque entries for its 1985 Valentine sale, hit upon the wheeze of legitimising downmarket erotic art by selling it under the banner of its own genre. For a while, it worked.

The demise of erotica auctions now means that some names unknown outside the erotica market may never he seen at auction again. One is David Wilde (d1974), whose highly finished illustrations for German publications ranged from sensitive studies of the varieties of sexual positions to violently explicit scenes. They could be bought for under pounds 100.

Bonhams's erotica sales never did get a Titian. But they once got a bad Picasso - a carelessly etched The Artist's Studio showing a reclining artist and model, he with erect penis, est pounds 3,000-pounds 5,000. It was left unsold at pounds 2,000. 'Not erotic enough,' said Bonhams at the time.

It is not difficult to find erotic Picassos at auction. Up to a third of the 91 Picassos in Sotheby's December print sale could be said to be erotic. A nipple-count through current auction catalogues of pictures, decorative art, even souvenirs of the Grand Tour, would remind us that sex and art have always been closely intertwined.

Erotica turns up even at furniture sales. The pop artist Allen Jones makes tables in the form of an anatomically detailed nude on all fours supporting a glass tabletop. One sold for pounds 20,900. At Bonhams's current cash-and-carry decorative-arts sale there is a chair called Andromeda Nebula which looks like a science-fiction insect and sports joined genitals on the underside of the seat. Its designer, John Greed, is asking pounds 5,000.

Photograph sales are the most erotic. The biggest auction market is in New York. Voluptuous nudes by the Australian Helmut Newton regularly fetch pounds 1,000-pounds 5,000.

It is the erotic novelties that are hardest to find now that erotica is once again dispersed throughout its various auction niches - decorative arts, Asian art, ceramics, etc. Where would you look for a moulded brass box in the form of a day- bed which opens to reveal an amorous couple? Or one of those porcelain amorous couples, European or Asian, whose underside reveals joined genitals?

Established markets for Asian and Oriental erotica appear to be stable. Japanese erotic watercolours, notorious for phalluses the size of tree trunks and their thrusting, bored-looking couples, fetch around pounds 250. Cheap coloured prints, made for the European market from around 1860, go for pounds 10-pounds 15.

Chinese prints, softer than Japanese, are, on the whole, more valuable. Sothebys sells albums of 19th-century erotic prints for around pounds 1,200. The erotica of 18th-century court artists commands tens of thousands. Few top Indian artists dabbled in erotica, so good quality work is scarce. Watercolours are from pounds 100 to pounds 1,000.

Today's bargain basement: 19th-century Berlin plaques with their sugary nudes and Louis Icart's deco-style engravings of long-legged women with borzoi dogs - both ghastly and both abandoned by their main buyers, the Japanese, for reasons of finance rather than taste. A plaque or Icart bought for pounds 7,000 three or four years ago would be lucky to raise half that today.

For the impecunious British voyeur, postcards, one of Britain's top collectables, look like a good investment. Edwardian nude beauties are pounds 5-pounds 6. More sought after are Raphael Kirchner's First World War teases, from pounds 15 to pounds 30.

But for the connoisseur, the future of the market in this country looks bleak. Furtive pocket watches, women with whips, dirty postcards . . . this is what it has come to, the British taste in erotica. I blame John Ruskin. It was he, after all, who as executor of Turner's will destroyed all his drawings of docklands prostitutes. The detailed sexual anatomy, it seems, offended him.

Thesaurus Fine Art Information (071- 487 3401). Erotic Antiques by Annette Curtis (Lyle Publications, pounds 14.95). Monthly postcard sales, Bonhams, Honiton (0404 41872).

(Photographs omitted)

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