In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, Sotheby’s is presenting a live auction, titled BENT, with a portion of the proceeds going to The Center, a program specializing in health, wellness, and community for New York City’s LGBTQ population. The exhibit is open to the public from June 19 to June 26, and the auction will take place on June 27.
The collection features artwork and writing spanning almost two centuries, with works by Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Catherine Opie. One of the most prominent items is an 1867 association copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, addressed to his lover and companion Peter Doyle. Richard Austin, the head of Books & Manuscripts at Sotheby’s, is especially excited about the manuscript and the window it provides to Whitman’s fabled love life.
“It was really a case of opposites attracting,” Austin said of the relationship between Whitman and Doyle, who met when the former was 45 and the latter 21. “There’s a huge age difference, a difference in class, a chance meeting in a streetcar. Once they came together, they became companions from then on. It’s a great story. It’s unusual to have that sort of association copy between two men at the time where Whitman was signing so directly to Peter Doyle.”
Many consider Whitman to be one of the greatest poets in American history, if not the greatest. Austin believes that Whitman’s ability to translate across multiple generations secures his enduring legacy.
“Leaves of Grass is a great work of literature,” Austin said. “It invites interpretation with every generation. The way that someone would have read the line about containing multitudes is very different from the way someone would read it today...That’s one of the tests of great literature, that every leading generation can bring something to it.”
Although Whitman is now an iconic figure of queer literature, he was not always comfortable with his own sexuality. It took his relationship with Doyle to express that part of him more openly.
“Once he actually came to accept that he is who he is, you know he had this relationship with Peter Doyle, once he accepted that part of himself and became comfortable, that was a transformation for him,” Austin said. “I think that’s one of the things that’s perhaps the most relevant to all of us today, being able to accept yourself and be comfortable with yourself no matter who that is.
When choosing items for the auction, Austin and other department heads intended to present a wide array of LGBTQ history, not just limiting themselves to one time period or era. Austin also appreciates that the sale contains many different mediums and styles.
“What’s really fun about the sale is there are all sorts of price points,” he said. “One of the things I really like myself is there is a poster…It’s an illustration for what I believe was a jeans ad, and it’s just a man flexing a muscle…If you were a man in the Village at that time walking around you would see that everywhere, on posters and in shops. It’s just one of those things that took off, and this is an original print of it. It’s sort of evocative of a time and place.”
Austin hopes that the auction highlights Sotheby’s long history of inclusivity, and of inclusivity in the arts in general.
“This wasn’t something we were tasked with; this was very organic,” Austin emphasized. “Traditionally, one of the safest havens for LGBT individuals in history were the arts. People came and said, ‘Hey, I could work at Sotheby’s and be more open about myself than I could in another work environment where I’m less comfortable.’ Sotheby's’ has a long history of being inclusive, and that’s something we wanted to acknowledge with the sale as well.”
View featured artwork from the exhibit and auction here: