Saturday, December 13, 2003

Simon Houpt

p. R5.

Attention, retrosexual shoppers

Playboy magazine is selling off more than 300 items from its archives — at Christie's, no less. They may be sleazy, but they aren't cheap, writes SIMON HOUPT

NEW YORK — If you long ago gave up hope of finagling your way into the Playboy mansion, get out your chequebook. The notoriously discriminating velvet rope will be parted this New Year's Eve for anyone willing to drop a cool $30,000 to $50,000 (U.S.). And as a bonus, Playboy is throwing in a 1988 Mercedes Benz stretch limousine with the purchase of those tickets to Hef's fete.

The limo, which comes fully loaded (though not with Playboy bunnies) and has a mere 61,000 miles on it, will go up for auction during morning and afternoon sessions at Christie's Rockefeller Plaza branch next Wednesday. As part of its 50th-anniversary celebrations (and perhaps to shore up the company's share price), Playboy is selling off more than 300 items of memorabilia, photographs, fine art, manuscripts and cartoons, including that Mercedes 560 SEL, an original cartoon drawn by Hef for the magazine's debut issue in 1953, more than a dozen original watercolour Vargas Girls, letters signed by Vladimir Nabokov and nude photographs — lots of nude photographs.

Public viewing of the lots runs today through Tuesday at Christie's Rockefeller Plaza showroom.

If merely surviving the vast social changes of the last 50 years hasn't already burnished the Playboy image and removed most of its original smutty taint, the Christie's sale offers a significant imprimatur of official acceptance into acceptable society. After that, practically the only thing that could make Hugh Hefner more legitimate would be a knighthood. If only he were British.

Specialists from Christie's sifted through thousands of archived items, including more than 1,000 photographs and 5,000 art objects. "I can't think of any precedent where a magazine has allowed Christie's specialists to go into their archives," said Andrea Fiuczynski, the auctioneer who will conduct the sale, "and really, decade by decade, select iconic works in every discipline represented in the magazine."

Not every single form of those disciplines is represented: Playboy centrefolds are not included in the sale. Neither are some of the more down-market items of memorabilia that the company would surely have in its possession: say, a bunny costume found bunched up in the corner of the Playboy Mansion's grotto, spotted with organic matter, after one of the more furiously frenetic bacchanals.

But there are some choice works of fine art, including Tom Wesselman's erotic 1966 painting Study for the Great American Nude #87 (estimated price, $40,000 to $60,000), which hung in Hef's bedroom. Photographs include works by Herb Ritts and Helmut Newton, as well as a notorious shot by Lee Friedlander of a young Madonna from 1980 published amid controversy in 1985 after the singer hit the top of the charts.

There are also 15 absurdly curvy, long-limbed Vargas Girls showing off their opalescent skin, sucked-in tummies and thrust out cone-shaped breasts. You can track the progression of fashion and social change through the 1960s via their hairstyles and wardrobe, from the 1962 portrait of a nude bride leaning against her honeymoon luggage to the severely single swinging gals in hot pants later in the decade.

The lone black woman among Vargas's contributions to the auction comes from September, 1970, when black pride was beginning to take hold as a mainstream movement. The portrait shivers with blaxploitation. Her hair in an Afro halo and with big gold jewellery adorning her ears, wrist and fingers, she purrs, "I believe in black pride, but there are some things I'd rather take lying down." Oh, behave!

Fiuczynski said she does not feel at all compromised as a woman selling what some people regard as totems of sexism or pornography. "Playboy is a lifestyle publication," she explained. "Lifestyle embraces all forms of life, which include sexuality and nudity." Pointing out that nudity has been depicted in art since antiquity, Fiuczynski said, "Certainly you see far more graphic depictions of sexuality and nudity in some of our contemporary-art sales."

The pre-sale estimates for the Vargas works range from $20,000 to $35,000, but the final prices for some of the auction's other items may reach far higher because of their perceived iconic status. During a Christie's sale of Marilyn Monroe artifacts in 1999, a diamond eternity band estimated at $50,000 sold for more than $700,000 and the dress worn by the actress when she sang Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy sold for $250,000 higher than the estimate.

Marilyn herself is represented in the Playboy auction with one of the renowned Tom Kelley photographs featured in the magazine's November, 1953, debut issue (est. $8,000 to $10,000). A cheesy reproduction of the photo, in which she is shown reclining against a red-velvet backdrop, shows up on the body of a Stratocaster guitar, one of 175 made by Fender for Playboy's 40th anniversary (est. $3,000 to $5,000).

Fiuczynski said Christie's has been conservative in conjuring its pre-sale estimates because, "It is extremely difficult to quantify the provenance. Internally, we're very curious to see how much the Playboy provenance will impact the hammer price." She said that a publicity tour of some of the items last summer drew both regular collectors and long-time or former Playboy fans who would not normally be drawn to a Christie's auction.

They may be especially interested in two of Hef's own little black books from the late 1950s, as well a flip-top phone and address book. Anyone hoping to use the numbers to reach old Hef associates will probably be out of luck, however, since many are dead, including Shel Silverstein, Nat "King" Cole and Gene Siskel. Others like Tony Curtis, Lauren Hutton and Warren Beatty have presumably moved.

Some items will likely be of more interest to collectors than aging playboys looking to relive their youth. During the sixties and seventies especially, Playboy published fiction and essays by many literary giants. The auction includes typescripts, sometimes with handwritten corrections, by Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Ray Bradbury, Alex Haley, Ian Fleming, Arthur C. Clarke, and others.

It also includes a curio from Nabokov's hand, a drawing of the Playboy rabbit-head logo in the form of a butterfly, which was published on the magazine's contents page in August, 1976. Nabokov, an amateur butterfly scholar, had apparently sent the drawing to the magazine, with a letter noting, "Have you ever noticed how the head and ears of your Rabbit resemble a butterfly in shape?"

Another auction lot includes galley sheets of an interview with Nabokov conducted by Alvin Toffler (est. $3,000 to $4,000). Indicating that Playboy was never shy about giving its subjects a pre-publication peek at the interviews, Nabokov's notes and corrections pepper the galleys.

Perhaps the item with the most literary significance is a typed manuscript by Jack Kerouac comprising sections of his novel Visions of Cody (est. $20,000 to $30,000). Originally titled by Kerouac Earlier History of Dean Moriarty , the story was published in the magazine in December, 1959, under the title Before the Road.

No memorabilia related to the magazine's fiction or essays from the last couple of decades is included in the sale, reinforcing the impression that the auction is a nostalgic look back at a magazine whose cultural influence died long ago. A promotional video for the sale features LeRoy Neiman, 66, the artist who gave the world the Femlin, that bestockinged minx who symbolizes Playboy almost as much as the rabbit head.

Sporting a handlebar mustache of remarkably vibrant brown despite his grey head of hair, Neiman is reminded that the art critic Robert Hughes said, many decades ago, that the three most famous painters in America were Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth and LeRoy Neiman. "What do I think of that?" he asks rhetorically. "I think, at that time, he was right."

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Created: January 5, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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