Paid to ponder and gather erotic art

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters Life!) - Laura Henkel spends her days looking and thinking about erotic art and gets paid up to $300 an hour for her efforts.

A visitor admires a sculpture at an Erotic Era exhibition in central St. Petersburg October 16, 2005. Laura Henkel spends her days looking and thinking about erotic art and gets paid up to $300 an hour for her efforts. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

The 40-year old Sausalito resident, who lives on a houseboat, appraises erotic art, including hard-core pornography, sex comic books, film posters and suggestive paintings.

She is also putting together a collection for a new explicit museum to open in Las Vegas next year.

“It’s very entertaining. I feel very lucky that I do what I do,” Henkel said in an interview,

“It’s definitely not boring.”

Henkel worked for 18 years as a legal secretary in Miami and San Francisco before changing careers and getting a doctorate in human sexuality at San Francisco’s Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.

She is now leading an effort by the Exodus Trust, the institute’s parent organization, to set up the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas by next January.

“I’m always just fascinated,” she said about coming across a new collection. “I look at it as a whole, almost like a kid in a candy store, what’s that, what’s the value of this, what’s the story behind this?”

What was once dismissed as smut is increasing in value. A poster of the 1970s film “Deep Throat” recently sold for $1,000 at auction, and goes for even more in Europe, Henkel said. Some art, such as old gay erotica, is now valuable because it was once forbidden.

She recently assessed a collection of 5,000 erotic comics being offered to the Exodus Trust by the widow of its owner at


“You get little aspects of who they are, what their relationship might be to the material. You’re getting a glimpse of their private lives so to speak,” she said.


Earlier this year, Henkel evaluated the collection of a 1970s pornographer, including original films of the era and posters that lured patrons into adult theaters, which she valued at several hundred thousand dollars. It required an occasional viewing of original 35mm films to check their quality.

Asked how she reacts to seeing often explicit content, Henkel chooses her words carefully.

“When you have a job to do, you’re focusing on the job. Every now and then something will make me giggle, or make me like, woo, I don’t really like that,” she said.

“There are aspects that do make me giggle and do make me say, oh boy, that’s good!”

Henkel is most interested in the pornography and erotic art of recent decades, especially the films from the 1950s-70s when she says the people and their bodies seemed more real.

“From an anthropological standpoint, it’s a glimmer of who we are, it’s a piece of history,” she said.

“To me, it is more or less folk art. It represents what was going on with the culture at the time.”

Recently she has been gathering art for the Las Vegas sex museum which included trips to Murano, Italy to find erotic blown glass, and to London to meet an artist specializing in erotic painting.

In her search Henkel looks for sex gems in private collections through dealers and contacts, and even searches through the online auction site eBay -- but with a skeptical eye for fakes.

“There’s a lot of quantity but there’s not a lot of quality,” she said.