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Penthouse erotica comes off the shelf

The owner of publisher Bob Guccione’s personal collection says he is close to resolving rights disputes

The model Teresa Ann Savoy (left) and Bob Guccione’s M Undressed, 1954, both from the publisher’s collection. Photo: Courtesy of the Guccione Collection

The erotic art collection of Bob Guccione, the late founder of Penthouse magazine, has been at the centre of a number of recent disputes. But Jeremy Frommer, the former Wall Street banker who, in 2012, bought the bulk of Guccione’s art and assets, including oil paintings, sketches and erotic photographs that had been stored in sealed lockers and held by creditors, says he is close to settling two legal cases involving his rights to the collection. Frommer refuses to give a figure for his purchases, but says it took three people a year to sift through Guccione’s ephemera, which filled around 3,000 sq. ft.

Caligula revisited

Frommer, who runs the Guccione Collection, filed two lawsuits last year after receiving separate legal letters from FriendFinder Networks, the adult website company that owns Penthouse, and the Guccione Estate. The letters accused Frommer of infringing copyright and trademark laws by displaying and selling the collection online. Frommer filed a suit against FriendFinder Networks in September and a second, similar, suit in October against the Guccione Estate, claiming that he legally owns all rights to the assets he bought and so is free to show and sell the collection. Despite counter-claims from both companies, Frommer says he will exhibit all 64 oil paintings by Guccione, an unsuccessful artist, in New York and London this spring. Lawyers for FriendFinder and the Guccione Estate declined to comment.

Christie’s New York pulled out of plans to auction works including paintings by Guccione, as well as his original camera, watches and storyboards from the X-rated film “Caligula”, which the publisher produced in 1979. The auction house was in discussions with Frommer in late 2013 about a sale this year, but changed its mind, Frommer says. “They didn’t want to be associated with Guccione,” he says. A spokesman for Christie’s says that the auction house turned down the opportunity “predominantly due to the low overall lot value”. In 2010, Christie’s sold items from the Playboy collection, including photographs from the magazine.

Last November, Frommer turned to Liveauctioneer.com, which sold works including two oil paintings by Guccione (for $10,000 each) and a selection of nude photographs of Madonna, aged 18, taken by Herman Kulkens. “We made around $200,000 in total,” Frommer says. He plans to host a second auction with Liveauctioneer.com this summer.

Double bankruptcy

Guccione died penniless in 2010. His company, General Media, the publisher of Penthouse, had gone bankrupt in 2003. Just 20 years earlier, Forbes magazine had estimated Guccione’s wealth at $400m. His art collection alone was reported to be worth $150m; it included works by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Botticelli and Dürer. The art was sold to pay Guccione’s debts. In 2004, Marc Bell, then the chief executive of FriendFinder Networks, and his business partner Daniel Staton bought Penthouse out of bankruptcy, but last September, FriendFinder filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to restructure its debt.

Frommer says he is now “in dialogue” with FriendFinder about reinventing the Penthouse brand—presumably once court proceedings are over. “Key members of the Penthouse group share my appreciation for the vintage vibe Guccione created,” Frommer says. “Working together to reposition Penthouse in that vein could be on the cards.”

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