You'd think that with today's proliferation of readily accessible nude pictures, adult films, and sex toys, the world of erotica is disposable; there's always something new just a click away, so why bother to save anything?
But the depiction of sex has been a part of human culture for thousands of years. While it's easy to think that the pornography industry is an invention of the last three or four decades, erotic expression reaches as far back as the 8th century BC.
Historically, collectors of this niche field have remained underground, afraid that showing an interest in the world of sex would bring shame and mockery to them or their families. That's still often the case, but as porn becomes more mainstream — due in part to its near inescapable presence online — more people are becoming comfortable in owning a part of its history, which is driving up the value of those collectibles.
It is, in fact, the factory-like production of much of today's porn that has made some collectors appreciate items of the past.
"A lot of the films people are rediscovering is happening because so much of the stuff they're making now is fast and furious," says Ted McIlvenna, Ph.D., president of The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco and curator of the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas.
McIlvenna may quite possibly possess the largest collection of erotic memorabilia in the world. The 80-year old former theological professor claims to have over 3 million items, filling 34 warehouses.
If you can think of it, he has it, as well as all sorts of things that would likely never cross your mind. While he readily admits to being a collector and not a dealer of this sort of memorabilia, he's noted an increased interest among people in the one-sheet movie posters and press books (promotional kits with photos and press releases) for porn films from the 1970s and early 1980s.
Most collectibles hover in the $200 to $500 range, but rare items, such as the original poster for 1972's legendary film "Deep Throat," sell for up to $5,000.
Perhaps more incredibly, as McIlvenna has explored the items donated to his collection, he has found prints done by well-known artists, including Thomas Rowlandson, that are quite erotic in nature but were previously undiscovered, since the artists didn't want to risk damaging their reputations. He estimates the value of these prints to be worth thousands of dollars each.
Naomi Wilzig knows a few things about erotic art. As the founder and president of the World Erotic Art Museum in Miami Beach, she has spent the last 20 years collecting these sorts of objects, gathering roughly 4,000.
The most valuable in Wilzig's collection, on which she declines to put a price tag but others have valued at up to $30 million, is a toss up: Either the phallic murder weapon prop used in film adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel "A Clockwork Orange," or a German-made four-poster bed where the posts are tree trunks carved to resemble the male sex organ, and 136 Kama Sutra images are carved into the sideboard and rails.
"It's definitely a new market, but it's an evolving market," she says. "People are realizing how important erotic art is to both own and display. People used to cast it aside as sordid, but are now realizing it's important. There's no doubt it's escalating."
Objects and Toys
Beyond paintings, there are plenty of bronzes and cultural objects that incorporate erotica, many of which are on display at the 12,000-square-foot museum.
What you won't find there are items directly associated with the porn industry — especially sex toys. Nonetheless, that industry, too, is gathering interest from collectors.
Last March, a pair of sex toys thought to be more than 200 years old fetched £3,600 (more than $5,300) at auction in Essex, U.K. Today's manufacturers of high-end sex toys say there's the potential for investment returns in some of their products, as well.
In some cases, it's purely a matter of materials. Lifestyle-product makers Lelo and JimmyJane both have offered gold-plated and platinum-plated vibrators.
More likely to be appreciated are the limited-edition products that are produced in collaboration with well-known artists. Jamie Hewlett, creator of the "Tank Girl" comic, has worked with JimmyJane to produce a series of toys that have characters etched onto them. Musician Dave Stewart, co-founder of the band the Eurythmics, has worked with the company to create a limited edition toy.
"I think we're at an interesting moment in the intersection of sex and art," says Ethan Imboden, JimmyJane's founder, chairman, and chief creative officer. "I think there will be more of these intersections that will create these collectible pieces. Because of the taboo in the past, they're fairly rare, but as we move forward and [more artists begin] working in this space, I think you'll see more and more interest and an accompanying market."
But what about the main attraction of porn — the films themselves? While there's some interest in the Super-8 and 16MM loops, as wells as in turn-of-the-century films, it's generally not a lucrative field for investors. Fans of older stars tend to be loyal, but not to the extent that they'll pay any noticeable money for things.
"There are collectibles that some die hard fans collect," says Alec Helmy, president and publisher of adult industry trade Xbiz. "Some collect VHS tapes and apparel items from their favorite stars, but if you're looking at something that would be considered truly collectible, it's a little murkier."