Classic Erotica

Classic Erotica
Classic Erotica

One of the plainest offerings in a recent sale held by specialist horological auctioneers Antiquorum was an 1810, Swiss-made pocket watch with a white dial, two hands and Breguet numerals. Nothing remarkable about that, but those in the know were only too aware that this particular watch was not all it seemed, because the case back concealed a scene far removed from the staid image of Swiss watchmaking.

The delicately enamelled image showed a lusty fusilier involved in a very different type of engagement to those of the battlefield - making love to a clearly eager farm girl on a pile of straw.

If someone were to re-stage the exact scene today, and photograph it, there is no doubt that it would be regarded as pornography; but in this quaint, early 19th century painted context it is referred to merely as 'erotic art'.

Classic Erotica

And such titillating images are by no means confined to horology, because there is no shortage of categories for the collector of erotic antiques to choose from; indeed, until the early 1990s, Bonhams auctioneers held specialist erotica sales.

Eyes wide open

Since they stopped holding such offerings, however, it has become necessary to trawl auction catalogues covering a variety of I subjects in order to discover where the more titillating pieces have been secreted.

If you do choose to go the auction route, the most likely hunting grounds are sales offering Chinese and Japanese paintings and works of art, objects of vertu, 19th century European drawings and prints, photographs and, of course, clocks and watches.

And if the odd 18th century glass penis or animal gut condom is your bag, try a sale of instruments of science and technology.

Duncan Chilcott, who organised Bonhams' erotica auctions during the late 1980s, blames their demise in this country on the coyness of the British buyer.

Classic Erotica

"One thing which struck me was that very few of the ardent collectors appeared to be British," says Duncan. "There were plenty of buyers from France, Germany and Holland, but few from our own country. This eventually meant we had to travel to the continent in order to find suitable property, and the sales basically ran their course."

Classic Erotica

The British reluctance to bid or least to be seen bidding - must be a throwback to Victorian correctness. This was the period when production of erotic antiques created in this country was at its height.

Whereas our continental cousins were shamelessly guffawing over any number of explicit engravings, carved wooden phalluses and copulating couples, often incorporated into such public items as Meerschaum pipes, bronze statues and decanters with penis- shaped pourers, the British were very much closet eroticists.

Classic Erotica
The demand for erotica in this country tended to centre around discreet items: pocket watches concealing a saucy scene, or snuff boxes with a secret compartment hiding a bedroom spanking.

The Chinese and Japanese were just the opposite, positively revelling in the free sexual morality of their countries. In Japan, erotic works of art were often used as 'educational tools'.

Members only

The cultural necessity for a Japanese woman to know exactly how to pleasure her companion resulted in the production of all manner of items from 'pillow books', through which they could learn what was expected of them, to ivory statues in the form of male members with which they practised while alone.

Classic Erotica

The Chinese have long been shameless voyeurs, and their slightly more subtle approach to matters of the flesh often makes their products more sought after than those of their Japanese counterparts.

Education tended to be less important to the Chinese than titillation, and as a result their erotic products of the 18th and 19th century were often even more artistic. Porcelain, for example, was painted with as much attention given to accurately depicting the flora and fauna of a garden scene as to the orgy taking place within it.

Erotica in two dimensions is particularly accessible in photographic form, from the basic "what the butler saw" Victorian snap to hilarious French flagellation scenes. Far more controversial have been the explicit homosexual images produced by late 20th-century photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, whose original prints continue to rise steadily in value.

Classic Erotica

A gentle contrast to Mapplethorpe's rawness can be found in the dreamy watercolours and prints of the extraordinarily prolific British painter SirWiliam Russell Flint.

Flint appears to have been unashamedly besotted with his principle muse, the late Cecilia Green. Depictions of a largely naked Ms. Green reclining in apparently exotic locations - usually set up at Russell Flint's Kensington studio - regularly appear at auction with prices ranging from around £5,000 for an artist's proof to as much as £100,000 for an original watercolour.

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