Seduced by Erotic Art

Museum founder Naomi Wilzig with
Museum founder Naomi Wilzig with "Leda and the Swan"; below, detail of a watercolor of Josephine Baker, part of the museum collection. (Photos By Robert G. Harbour -- World Erotic Art Museum)
By Risha Gotlieb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 2, 2006

It didn't take years of psychoanalysis or a religious epiphany for Naomi Wilzig to cast off a life of constraints. No, it was erotic art and its special allure that propelled her into a $10 million global quest.

At 71, after a 16-year buying spree, Wilzig is one of the world's preeminent private collectors of fine erotic art. Her cache of approximately 4,000 pieces includes paintings, sculptures and tapestries from all over the world, some dating from 300 B.C.

But for years, pressured by the stigma attached to erotic art, Wilzig kept her vast collection in her 3,500-square-foot Tampa Bay winter home. Grandma's house was starting to look like a Danish sex shop. But, she says, "these works served no great value sitting at home."

Wilzig cast around for five years looking for a place to display her art. New York, Las Vegas, St. Petersburg and Tampa were chilly to her proposal, she says. She finally chanced on South Beach, the hot quarter of Miami Beach that is a mixture of tycoons, celebrities, bikini-clad models, Eurotrash and Art Deco architecture.

It was a fit, and last October Wilzig opened the World Erotic Art Museum, the only gallery of its kind in North America.

Housed on the second floor of a simple white building on Washington Avenue, the museum is as nondescript as its curator. You could never guess by looking at this 5-foot-3, unassuming, rosy-cheeked grandmother of three the sultry images she collects.

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Wilzig was raised in a strict Orthodox Jewish household. "I was brought up in an environment where there was absolutely no discussion of sex," she says. "It didn't exist." She went on to become a banker's wife in Clifton, N.J. Her late husband, Siggi Wilzig, was president and CEO of the Trust Co. of New Jersey and one of the founders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Wilzig says her husband never shared her passion for erotic art and she pursued her hobby under the pseudonym "Miss Naomi."

Although Wilzig had been an avid antique collector, it was only after her eldest son, Ivan, asked her to buy "an erotic conversation piece" for his bachelor apartment that she began to think about acquiring erotic art. "I didn't even know that it existed," she says.

Three months later she found her first erotic art piece in a St. Petersburg, Fla., antique shop. The proprietor climbed a ladder and pulled out a book hidden behind a tall wooden cabinet. It was a shunga, a hand-painted, leather-bound Japanese pillow book from about 1850 featuring a series of 25 prints. The shunga, a sort of how-to manual, was typically given to young couples on their wedding night, she explains.

Wilzig was instantly seduced by the taboo factor of the art and the challenge of simply finding it.

Although erotic art can be traced to Cro-Magnon times, much of it has been hidden or lost when it was excluded by politics, religion and class strictures, says June Reinisch, director emeritus and senior research fellow of the Kinsey Institute, who has lectured around the world on many aspects of sexuality including erotic art. She adds that most American museums still keep their erotic art collections hidden from the general public.

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