Assets: Erotica, Moving Mainstream,
Stirs Art Market
Sat February 14, 2004 04:15 PM ET
By Richard Chang
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Erotic art is stepping out of the closet into
museums and galleries, as a growing mass of collectors are openly
enjoying and willing to pay top dollar for the aesthetic and sensual
thrills of previously forbidden fruit.
"There's a realization that art can be sexy and erotic and you
can show it in your home. It's becoming more permissible," said
Allena Gabosch, director of The Wet Spot, a not-for-profit group
that organizes the annual Seattle Erotic Arts Festival (seattleerotic.org).
"I find great pleasure in art that affects all of my
More and more people seem to agree, judging from the festival's
attendance, which doubled to 4,000 in its second annual show in the
first weekend of February -- timed to usher in Valentine's Day. On
display were 500 works priced from $40 to $10,000, by 187 artists
from 10 countries.
Photo-realistic paintings of pin-up fantasy women by Hajime Sorayama
(sorayama.net) sell for as much as $25,000, while those of Olivia De
Berardinis (eolivia.com) go for up to $75,000.
"We're moving into a renaissance in that the number of artists
producing erotica is growing," said Durk Dehner, director of
the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles
The nonprofit group was founded in 1984 to preserve and promote the
work of homoerotic Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen, who signed his
drawings "Tom of Finland" when he started submitting them
to American muscle magazines in 1956. The group's mission now
extends to erotic art of all persuasions.
It's a far cry from when "forbidden art" was hidden away
or published only in the underground press. Tom's fantasy sketches,
featuring incredibly well-endowed masculine gay men, are now on
permanent display in museums in Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; San
Francisco; and Helsinki, Finland. Controversial gay photographer
Robert Mapplethorpe has also become an icon.
With this change in status, a Tom of Finland sketch that cost $350
in 1978 now sells for $12,000, Dehner said. Even so, a 21-inch wide
1989 poster of his is available at the foundation's Web site for as
low as $20.
"We're on the edge of where erotic works will probably start
increasing at faster rates," Dehner said, noting they are now
perceived as fine art. "If people can feel that something is
held in high regard, they're more comfortable with it."
The difference between art and pornography is clear to "Miss
Naomi," who has acquired 4,000 museum-quality works worth
millions of dollars (missnaomi.com) over 12 years.
"Pornography gives you one message -- Let's get it on, let's
have sex," said the author of "Forbidden Art: The World of
Erotica" and "Visions of Erotica" (Schiffer,
schifferbooks.com). "Erotic art engages you in a thoughtful
process. It's an interpretation about it, the talent, the unusual or
beautiful way the art is displayed."
Among her notable artifacts is a 31-inch-long
white fiberglass phallic sculpture used as a murder weapon in the
movie "Clockwork Orange." Miss Naomi, who paid $3,000 for
it in 2000, has it insured for $15,000. She estimates that many
items have tripled or quadrupled in value since she bought them.
Paintings and sketches by Etienne, who was strongly influenced by
Tom of Finland, now sell for 10 times their value in the 1970s, said
Pet Silvia, who runs Art (at) Large, an erotic figurative art
gallery in New York (http://www.artatlarge.com).
Among contemporary works, those of John John Jesse, whose
Catholic-themed paintings cross over into the "lowbrow"
category, have nearly tripled in value over the last 18 months, said
Silvia, a self-described "heterosexual drag queen."
"Believe it or not, it's through word of mouth. We're dealing
with an inventory of his that we can't keep in the house long
enough," he said.
Nude paintings on wood by Frances Turner, of less-than-perfect human
subjects, have also escalated in value since the British artist died
of a brain tumor last July at age 38, Silvia said. "She found
beauty in everyone, whether they were heavily tattooed, obese, an
"Mainstream" artists are finding their way into the market
as well. Jeff Hengst (hengst.com), largely known for his painting
commissioned by the Seattle Space Needle, showed his edgier works at
the Seattle Erotic Arts Festival, priced as high as $10,000.
"We're moving toward becoming more comfortable with human
sexuality, so that those artists creating (erotic art) will have a
lot more vehicles to showcase their work," said Dehner of the
Tom of Finland Foundation.
As a result of these changes, "now is a very good time to
purchase erotic art," he said. "It's my feeling that, in
the next 5 to 10 years, it's going to break and make much deeper
inroads into the mainstream."
© Reuters 2004. All Rights Reserved.