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Wednesday 13 July 2022

Collector's item - very rare, something for the private cupboard, sir?

Currently in the process of looking through some boxes of my own archives, going back some considerable while, and coming across various ephemera and memorabilia that colleagues and friends passed on to me as possibly falling within my sphere of interest. One of which was the photocopy of a page from a catalogue of a sale at Christie's in the summer of 1992, 'The Property of Maxwell Business Communications Ltd' - this included various items of medical/pharmaceutical historical interest, so I can see why my colleague had it.

One item was A rare male contraceptive device, of animal membrane, with printed satirical scene, inscription 'Voila mon choix', and thread and silk tie, French, early 19th century - 7in long. (The satirical scene consists of a nun, two monks, and a bishop, all flashing one another.)

The Times Diary, 10 June 1992, reported that 'the dubious honour of auctioning the world's most collectible condom falls to Christie's next month.... expected to to fetch up to £800'. In fact, it finally went for £3300, to an art dealer purchasing on behalf of a Swedish client who was said to be opening an erotica and pornography museum (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 3 July 1992). This possibly remains the record amount paid for a historical condom.

Digging about to find out any more details on this, I discovered that Christie's did a certain amount of business in antique johnnies: in November the same years the Associated Press reported 'Five 19th century condoms have been sold for more than $12,000 in an auction at Christies' (one said to have been illustrated). A 19th-century French reusable condom, 8 1/2 in long, made from animal membrane with a yellow silk pull-string and maker's envelope inscribed 'moisten before using', was auctioned in 1993 and  two 19th-century condoms with blue silk drawstrings in 1995. Three C18th sheepgut condoms were sold in 2000; and one in 2001, illustrated with a sketch of a sexual encounter.

As historical items, the thought arises that these items must have very considerable conservation and storage requirements.

The other thought that arises is, did illustrating a condom affect its efficacy? What were the health and safety implications in use of the substances used to create the image? Or was an illustrated condom merely a novelty item not intended for actual use?

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