Christies auction house spiced up the holiday shopping last month with the sale of 125 pieces from the Playboy Art Collection. The December 8th sale entitled “The Year of the Rabbit,” included 80 photographs, 24 cartoons, and 21 contemporary paintings and grossed nearly $3 million.
Sale highlights included a Salvador Dali titled “Playmate After Rokeby Venus,” specially commissioned by the magazine in 1966 as one of the 11 works to appear in “The Playmate as Fine Art” issue. The watercolor, with its inspiration from Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus” surpassed its $150,000 high estimate, selling for $266,500. Founder and CEO of Playboy, Hugh Hefner, who had the painting in his bedroom for nearly 40 years, expressed how much he will miss the piece saying, “It’s a reclining nude, so that made it easy to personally identify with.”
Another popular piece was the iconic “Mouth No. 8” by Tom Wesselmann, selling for $1.8 million. Wesselmann told the magazine in 1967, “I chose to do a huge cutout mouth in order to isolate and make more intense the one body part that has a high degree of both sexual and expressive connotations — but then painted a mouth with low degrees of each quality, to keep it, like the [Playboy] Playmate, somewhat glossy yet inviting.”
For the more traditional Playboy fans, there were also a number of photographs of the famous…faces… to grace the magazine such as Brigitte Bardot, Cindy Crawford, Madonna, Bo Derek, and of course, Marilyn Monroe. The original photograph of Marilyn that became the very first cover image of Playboy magazine sold for $17,500.
Pieces that did not fare as well included, predictably, photographs of Hefner’s friends and heroes: Dennis Hopper, Duke Ellington, Bill Cosby, and Jerry Seinfeld. Vintage layout boards of centerfold girls with the characteristic red marker circles, slashes, and “more eye shadow” and “move leg here” notes scribbled across were also left without a single bid.
Both Hefner and Head of Sale at Christie’s, Sophia Chabbott, found the link between the collection and the ethos of the publication itself unique. Both heralded the magazine for its contributions to the American commercial art scene and the liberation of visual culture. Hefner said, “Playboy helped to change the very direction of commercial art – breaking down the wall between fine and commercial art,” calling all previous illustration “Rockwell-esque.”
This is the second time Playboy has auctioned off pieces from their collection, and certainly not the last. Aaron Baker, curator of the Playboy Art Collection (how do you get that job?), boasted that the enterprise still houses an archive of 5,000 contemporary art works and more than 20 million photographs.
By Molly Cotter