The Year of the Rabbit: Photography and art from Playboy goes under the hammer

Christie's and Playboy have joined forces to announce The Year of the Rabbit, an auction of more than 125 works from the corporate collection of Playboy Enterprises.

From contemporary works by Salvador Dalí and Tom Wesselmann to iconic photographs of Marilyn Monroe from the pages of Playboy magazine, the collection is comprised mostly of works that were commissioned by the ground-breaking magazine.

The auction is robust with photographs by the likes of Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton, Peter Beard, Sante D'Orazio and Patrick Demarchelier. Also included are watercolours by famed pin-up artist Alberto Vargas and a selection of classic cartoons.

"I'm pleased Playboy is partnering with Christie's to honour our visual legacy with this marvelous auction," said Playboy founder Hugh M. Hefner. "For me, this auction is a walk down memory lane, a chance to pay tribute to our greatest contributors and to share some of our finest moments with collectors."

Playboy magazine was founded by Hefner in 1953 in Chicago. An amateur cartoonist prior to founding Playboy, Hefner had long been interested in the arts and sought to collaborate with top artists, illustrators and photographers to create a modern, visually arresting magazine.

In that vein, he tapped Chicago artist and designer Art Paul to serve as Playboy's art director (1953-1985) where he was charged with commissioning premiere artists, illustrators and photographers to infuse the magazine with vibrancy and depth.

The Playboy Art Collection includes approximately 5,000 works of commissioned art including paintings, drawings, watercolours and sculptures, most of which have appeared in the magazine.

"The Playboy Art Collection is a remarkably sophisticated collection of works by some of the world's most respected artists and photographers," said Cathy Elkies, Senior Vice President, Director of Private and Corporate Collections at Christie's.

"Since Marilyn Monroe graced the first cover of Playboy, the magazine has continued to be an icon maker. Christie's is honoured and excited to present The Year of the Rabbit collection, unveiling spectacular art works and photographs of the world's leading models and actresses, which offer insight to the influence and artistic integrity of the famed magazine."

Wesselmann Lips painting for Playboy
Wesselmann's Lips painting for Playboy

Tom Wesselmann's Mouth #8 1966 (estimate: $2,000,000-3,000,000) is the top lot of the sale. The daring, somewhat sexually explicit scarlet-lipsticked mouth was one of Wesselmann's iconic Sixties motifs, which propelled him into becoming an originator and leader of the Pop Art movement alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Playboy commissioned the work directly from the artist for its landmark pictorial, The Playmate as Fine Art: Eleven Famous Contemporary Artists Interpret the Provocative Gatefold Girl (January 1967).

Playboy commissioned the renowned Salvador Dalí to paint Playmate, 1966 (estimate: $100,000-150,000), which also appeared in the magazine's January 1967 The Playmate as Fine Art pictorial. Until recently the work, depicting a reclining nude, hung in Hefner's bedroom in the famed Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills.

Playboy painting by Dali
Playboy painting by Dali

While never seen before in Playboy magazine, Hefner's portrait by Herb Davidson, 1970 (estimate: $5,000-7,000) is of particular resonance to the collection and its founder. It shows Hefner in his famous signature attire: his smoking jacket.

Many collectors are interested specifically in Playboy memorabilia. (They may be interested to know that outside the sale, an original Playboy Bunny Costume is currently available.)

There will be 80 photographs in the sale. The Playboy Art Collection houses approximately 20,000,000 photographs.

The auction includes a broad range, from the pin-ups of the 1950s such as Anita Ekberg by André de Dienes (estimate: $3,000-5,000), the 1960s with Brigitte Bardot (estimate: $3,000-5,000 for two gelatin silver prints), to the most famous fashion models of today including Iman, Stephanie Seymour and Cindy Crawford.

Well known Playboy Playmates' pictures are also incorporated into the sale such as Pamela Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith and Jenny McCarthy.

There are several photographs of the ultimate pin-up girl, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe graced the cover of the first issue in December 1953 and was the issue's "Sweetheart of the Month."

Marilyn playboy images
Marilyn Monroe Playboy images

Monroe highlights include (clockwise from top-left): United Press, Marilyn Monroe, first Playboy cover, December 1953 (estimate $10,000-15,000); Earl Moran's Marilyn Monroe, 1953 (estimate: $20,000-30,000); Marilyn Monroe Remembered, January 1964 by Lawrence Schuiller and William Read Woodfield (estimate: $10,000-15,000) and Tom Kelley's Marilyn Monroe for 'Nude Marilyn' pictorial (estimate: $7,000-9,000).

Christie's auction of The Year of the Rabbit is a follow up to Playboy's 50th anniversary auction in December 2003, when the company sold archival works from the collection with Christie's New York. The sale, which included memorabilia, such as manuscripts, cartoons and photographs realised over $2.7 million.

The Year of the Rabbit sale, which celebrates 57 years of provocative and cutting-edge art and photography, offers collectors a rare glimpse inside the company's art collection and archives which includes more than 5,000 works of commissioned art and approximately 20,000,000 photographs.

It will be offered at Christie's New York on December 8, 2010 and is expected to realize from $3-4.5 million. Signed photographs of Playmates may be found here.


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