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From a Table of Phalluses to a Ménage à Trois Watercolor, Erotic Art Heads to Auction

Sotheby’s first-ever auction of erotic artworks, timed to Valentine’s Day, features a delightful range of objects, including a rare homoerotic painting from 18th-century Turkey.

A painted plywood table, after that supposedly delivered to Catherine the Great, modern (all images courtesy Sotheby’s)

A table with phalluses and breasts forming its arching base, complete with carvings of more genitalia attached to its round surface — if the tales hold true, this would be one of a number of titillating furnishings held in a secret erotic salon Catherine the Great supposedly had, adjacent to her private apartments. While two photographs captured in 1941 by Wehrmacht soldiers may portray these playful pieces, the royal palaces were soon bombed, eradicating any concrete evidence that the empress — known for quite the sexual appetite — ever sat around such mischievous decor, sipping on state-produced vodka while contemplating horseplay.

Ettore Sottsass, “‘Shiva’ Vase” (designed 1973)

But now you may host your own gathering around such a table (if you have a few extra thousand dollars on hand): a reconstructed, painted plywood version of it, with carvings of lush, golden tufts of hair, is part of a Sotheby’s sale of erotic art — the auction house’s first-ever one dedicated entirely to the representations of love and sex. “Erotic: Passion & Desire” (which is NSFW, obviously) features over 100 works of art from antiquity to the present-day and is appropriately timed to Valentine’s Day, occurring on February 16. Aside from the variety of mediums represented, there’s also an impressively vast range of sexual activities, and they’re not performed only by heterosexual couples.

“Taking a look through the catalogue, one is confronted with the idea that there is no form of modern sexual behavior that hasn’t already been perfected by our forebears — with the lots stretching back to ancient Rome,” Constantine Frangos, Head of the Sale, told Hyperallergic. “The oldest object in the sale is a Roman Marble Group of Two Lovers, circa 1st/2nd century AD. Marble sculptures depicting human couples engaged in lovemaking appear rarely in Roman art, and this work is one of only four known examples.”

“Roman Marble Group of Two Lovers: (c. 1st/2nd Century AD)

The marble scene of a man penetrating a woman from behind certainly deviates from other reclining figures from that ancient period, which capture men and women at least partially nude, but still simply relaxing, rather than frozen in mid-thrust. But these are, of course, early precedents of the sexually explicit imagery to come in European art: the Sotheby’s sale provides a nice selection of examples over a few centuries, from an 18th-century lady getting pleasured by her man in a powdered wig to 19th-century ménages à trois watercolors by Paul-Marc-Joseph Chenavard to Picasso’s hold-nothing-back nu sketches.

The most intriguing of the lots, however, are the artworks of Eastern and Middle Eastern origin. The auction features albums of shunga — the very raunchy illustrations popular during Japan’s Edo period and sexual paintings as well as an exquisite scroll from the Qing Dynasty. Such works exemplify how erotic scenes were quite widely accepted during these cultural periods; artists seamlessly integrated such eye-catching subjects into traditional formats, rendering architectural details and garments with as much attention paid to the love-making. Even in the Qing Dynasty, when erotic art was more suppressed in comparison to the Ming Dynasty, parents gifted graphic hand scrolls, albums, and paintings to daughters on their wedding days as instructive manuals, according to Sotheby’s Chinese Works of Art Specialist Emily Chang.

Qing Dynasty erotic handscroll, attributed to Qiu Ying
From a series of 10 erotic paintings from the Chinese School, Qing Dynasty

Less familiar to the eye may be a pair of watercolors from northern India that show very public acts of fornication: in one, a wide-eyed woman in ornate dress ogles another couple locked in a tight embrace; the other portrays a man and woman “making acrobatic love on a lake,” with crocodiles and fish jumping from the water gleefully observing the flexible folk. The rarest work, however, is likely a gouache-on-paper work of two men embracing each other, rendered in ink by Turkish artist Abdullah Bukhari in the 18th century.

“Just as erotic imagery held a special, almost secret place in European art at the time, it was a rare subject reserved for the Ottoman elite in Turkey,” Alexandra Roy, Sotheby’s Middle East Specialist told Hyperallergic.Abdullah Bukhari (who flourished between 1725–50s) was one of the great painters of 18-century Turkey, and whilst he mainly painted scenes for collectors’ albums including fine depictions of flowers, he was also a specialist in the painting of women. This work is extremely rare, as only five, single-page erotic paintings with no associated story lines are known and of these, only one other known example represents a homoerotic scene.”

In the image, a young man reclines with his arms behind his head as a mustachioed man in a fez holds him close. Isolated from any specific location, it’s a quiet scene, capturing one intimate but universally understood moment: of two lovers simply reveling in each other’s company.

One of two erotic scenes, ascribed to Abdullah Bukhari
A loving couple watched by a maiden, from North India (ca. 1700-40)
A couple making acrobatic love on a lake, from Mewar, North India (ca. 18th-century)
“Haru no tempura (Spring intimate pillow)” (late 17th century), a Japanese erotic handscroll from the School of Iwasa Matabei
From a series of 10 erotic paintings from the Chinese School, Qing Dynasty
From a series of 10 erotic paintings from the Chinese School, Qing Dynasty
French, carved mahogany bed (19th-century)
Pablo Picasso, “Nu (Nude)” (1971)
Pablo Picasso, “Nu couché” (1972)
Paul Marc Joseph Chenavard, “Blowing Bubbles” (19th-century)
Paul Marc Joseph Chenavard, “Amorous Reflections” (19th-century)

The auction “Erotic: Passion and Desire” will take place at Sotheby’s (34–35 New Bond Street, London, UK) on February 16.

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