Surprisingly little in Naomi Wilzig’s background suggests what she has become today. At 77, the Florida grandmother is one of the world’s pre-eminent private collectors of erotic fine art.
Her collection, valued in excess of $10 million, portrays the veritable cornucopia that is humanity’s sexual drama through the ages, from every culture, country and century.
Yet for the first 55 years of her life, Wilzig, born and raised in New Jersey, didn’t even know erotic art existed. She was raised in a strict Orthodox Jewish household where sex was never discussed. And she went on to become a mother of three and a charity maven, married to a conservative bank president who was also one of the founders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Already an avid collector of antiques, Wilzig was taken aback by a request from her eldest son, Ivan, to find an “erotic conversation piece” for his bachelor apartment on her next antique expedition.
Three months later, she found her first erotic piece in a St. Petersburg, Fla., antique shop. It was a shunga, a hand-painted, leather-bound Japanese pillow book from the 18th century that included a series of 25 prints – you could call it creative bedtime reading for honeymooners. It opened Wilzig’s eyes to a whole new world.
And so began a 16-year Indiana Jones-like quest in which she accumulated more than 4,000 artifacts, including paintings, sculptures, tapestries and knick-knacks.
“I was fascinated by the challenge of having to hunt for the art,” she says, explaining that much of it is kept hidden. She searched high and low halfway around the globe, going to auction houses, antique fairs and bazaars. Her adventures resembled a Laurel and Hardy skit whenever U.S. customs agents asked her to open her suitcase. They were wide-eyed and speechless when they saw what the grandmother was trying to bring into the country.
“If only you heard how I had to explain that this thing wouldn’t pose a national security risk,” she says, laughing.
Her late husband, Siggi Wilzig, an Auschwitz survivor who was the president and CEO of the Trust Co. of New Jersey, was conflicted about his wife’s new-found passion. With rabbis, politicians and captains of industry regularly visiting their New Jersey home, she was forced to pursue her quest under the pseudonym “Miss Naomi” and sequester her erotic artworks in her 3,500-square-foot Tampa Bay winter home.
“It was an awakening experience to see the world of lovemaking as portrayed by artists,” she says. Indeed, much of this art form has been suppressed, attacked and destroyed by religious ideologues and political rulers, and was accessible only to society’s elite.
Wilzig is an outspoken advocate for preserving these historically significant works and making them available to everyone to view. As she puts it: “Why should we be embarrassed? It’s a celebration of a gift from our creator. Without erotic spirituality and the motivation to connect with someone else, there would be no more people.”
And that is why at the age of 71 Wilzig took the daring step of exposing herself and her collection when she opened the world’s greatest museum devoted to erotic art.
Located in the heart of South Miami Beach, the World Erotic Art Museum makes her private collection accessible to the public. Organized into groupings of cultures, historical periods and themes, the museum features works by well-known artists such as Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, Kama Sutra temple carvings from India, Egyptian fertility amulets and Greco-Roman clay oil lamps from 300 BCE – as well as delightfully eccentric pieces such as the iconic phallic sculpture The Rocking Machine from Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic film A Clockwork Orange, which Wilzig acquired at auction in 1999. The museum also houses a research library of more than 250 volumes on erotic art. Wilzig herself has authored five books on erotica.
“Many people arrive at the museum with the preconceived notion that erotic means pornographic,” says Wilzig, adding that after they’ve gone through it their view are quite different. Indeed, the museum allows everyone, regardless of language or culture, to partake in a visual feast that portrays the lust for life. It reminds us that sexuality is a powerful force interwoven into everything that we do.
In addition to being beautiful, erotic art, Wilzig points out, “makes you think about things like relationships, politics, religion, women’s rights and human rights.”
Wilzig’s collection and museum have attracted local and international acclaim. The vice-president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau considers it the “most unique museum in Miami,” while local colleges send their human sexuality classes there as part of their studies. Recently, Wilzig was formally invested with an honorary doctorate in erotology and sexology by the San Francisco-based Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, considered the Harvard University of human sexology study.
And what do Wilzig’s children think? Her daughter, Sherry, who used to be embarrassed by her mother’s collection, now touts it to her friends and business associates. And her son, Ivan, who was the impetus for his mother’s enchantment with this art form, says, “She teaches us not to be trapped by dogma and other people’s opinions but to have the courage to follow your heart.”
For more information about the World Erotic Art Museum, at 1205 Washington Ave., South Miami Beach, call 305-532-9336 or visit www.weam.com. An exhibit featuring the erotic works of Rembrandt opens at the museum on Nov. 29.