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The art of passion

A millionaire grandmother prepares to show the world her unusual collection - erotic art and knickknacks gathered from around the world.

JAMES THORNER
Published June 17, 2004

The sexual revolution didn't just pass Naomi Wilzig by, it missed her by a million miles.

As the daughter of Orthodox Jewish parents, marrying outside the faith was forbidden. When she finally found a nice Jewish man, she obligingly dropped out of teachers college to please him. Even after the wedding, she would not consummate the marriage without her parents' blessing.

"I wasn't exposed to the outside world," the 69-year-old millionaire grandmother says. "A kosher hotel in Miami Beach and a kosher hotel in the Catskills: That was my world."

That's why it's so hard to explain the statue of the grinning shoeshine boy with a 3-foot protuberance sitting in Wilzig's living room.

As Miss Naomi, owner of the country's biggest private collection of erotic art, Wilzig is a connoisseur of flipped up petticoats, naughty knickknacks and various renderings of the male machinery.

Wooden African fertility figurines, alternately smooth and slivery, jam cabinets in her 3,500-square-foot Pasco County townhouse.

Leda embraces her swan in dozens of different statues and paintings. Adam coddles Eve, satyrs satisfy nymphs, lords squire ladies and prostitutes pleasure for pay.

Wilzig herself can't explain how it all happened, how her winter getaway in Florida, the place to which she retreated from New Jersey's January gloom, became crammed with genitalia in all their artistic variety.

"It went from interest to hobby to compulsion," she says beside a shelf of wooden devil figures with male organs dangling down their thighs. "Why did it take over my life? I almost can't tell you. It just happened."

Not that she's blushing under her deep Florida tan, glasses and curly dark hair. Under the grandmotherly shell lurks an I've-seen-it-all-and-you-can't-startle-me-anymore core.

She guides visitors though sitting rooms and bedrooms cluttered like Victorian parlors but with a naughtiness that would have left the old British queen gasping for her fainting couch.

A hallway cabinet holds an arrangement of erotic corkscrews. "This one is special because it has an erection. Finding that was a coup," Wilzig says.

Or another display case: "This cabinet is all fetish stuff," she says. Here you'll find a pierced Barbie and a Barbie who has something that belongs anatomically to Ken.

Nearby on the wall is a plaster creation scene, a spoof of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.

"God is a female and it's Eve who's created instead of Adam," Wilzig says. In her cavernous living room, propped atop a glass-topped coffee table, is one of her most treasured possessions.

It's white. It's smooth. It's fiberglass. It's cinematically familiar.

It's a sculpture from the 1971 Stanley Kubrick classic, A Clockwork Orange. Wilzig bought it at auction in New York for $3,000. Its value has risen to $15,000.

A rocking mechanism is hidden in its bottom, and Wilzig demonstrates how it works. Lowering it onto the carpet, she slaps the tip.

Again.

And again.

It starts rocking up and down, just as it did for Alex, the protagonist in A Clockwork Orange played by actor Malcolm McDowell.

"It works better on a hard surface," she concludes.

* * *

When she was 18 years old, Naomi Sisselman - daughter of cemetery owner Jerome Sisselman and his strictly Orthodox Jewish wife, Lorraine - did the unthinkable.

She eloped with a nearly penniless European refugee nine years her senior. Siegbert "Siggi" Wilzig was German, Jewish and an Auschwitz survivor. Naomi's parents had scorned the match.

Naomi and Siggi found the only judge working on New Year's Eve 1953. They were joined in a civil ceremony in the judge's office - inside the Passaic County, N.J., jail.

Naomi slipped home, the marriage still unconsummated, and begged her parents to consent. Nothing doing. Jerome and Lorraine were aghast.

It took 21/2 months for her parents to give their formal blessing, and the couple had a Jewish wedding at the Little Hungary catering hall on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The bride's and groom's families barely mingled. Wilzig said her family turned their noses up at the foreigners with the mangled English.

"It wasn't very pleasant," she says.

But her husband was a shooting star in the business world. Within a few years his investment in Wilshire Oil Co. of Texas made him rich.

He became president of the Trust Company of New Jersey and massively expanded it into the third largest commercial bank in the United States.

Through it all Naomi Wilzig raised three children, dedicated herself to charity and Jewish causes and played the dutiful wife.

Her husband was an effusive person who kept the limelight burning on himself, she says. She'd organize a grand dinner party, but Siggi got the applause. Siggi hobnobbed with Holocaust author Elie Wiesel and served American presidents on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

But his wife would make her own mark. After buying a winter home in Pasco, she began The Collection. That was 12 years ago.

Already a confirmed antiques nut, Wilzig was asked by her eldest son to find a couple of risque pieces for his expensively furnished bachelor pad in New Jersey. She bought a brass statue suggesting that three's company and a panel of four explicit Japanese prints, among other pieces.

An obsession was born. Art deco jewelry, silver English card cases and Royal Worcester porcelain just didn't cut it anymore. It was all so tame.

"This was a form of my own liberation," Wilzig says. "I would do what I liked regardless of what my husband said."

Siggi was so absorbed in his work he had little inkling of his wife's collection until it had ballooned to about 1,000 pieces. All were stashed in Land O'Lakes. Siggi's Florida trips rarely extended beyond hobnobbing with cronies at Miami's Fontainebleau hotel.

One day, with a mind to publishing a photo book of her collection, she brought a stack of photos to her husband in their three-story Georgian house in Clifton, N.J.

Poker-faced, Siggi flipped through the photos, dropped them on the table and announced it was a stupid idea. The publisher will rip you off, his wife remembers him saying. Asian factories would knock off the pieces without compensation.

Wilzig tried the indirect approach. She carried from Florida one of her most tasteful pieces, a sinuously silver Art Deco statue of a nude female dancer. She arranged it on a pedestal in the family dining room.

"When I came home that night the statue was on the floor and flowers were back on the pedestal," she says. "I decided not to inflict it on him anymore since he obviously didn't care for it."

Siggi died last year at the age of 76. He didn't live to see the bronze casting of a trio active on a pool table, the pair of leather men in love and the Indian totem pole with exaggerated anatomy.

To spare her husband embarrassment, the former Naomi Sisselman used to hide behind her maiden name whenever interviewed about erotica. She's now Wilzig again. She figures you can't shame the dead.

* * *

The dealers who clamor to satisfy Wilzig's artistic whims know her as one of the top three or four private collectors in the world. She's a rare woman in an erotic art world that revolves around satisfying male desire.

From her gallery in San Francisco, risque art broker Terry Arellano views Wilzig's collection as the cream of a frequently strange crop.

Greek myth and the Bible provide much of the inspiration for Wilzig's collection. A good percentage would be seen as X-rated owing to its attention to clinical detail.

But the collection contains relatively few novelty pieces of the lift-up-the-priest's-cassock-and-boing! variety. (Don't ask about the anatomical protruding toilet paper holder in one of her bathrooms.)

"I think it's exquisite. I've seen a lot of the collections around the world, and they can get pretty junky," Arellano says.

When Wilzig travels around the world she doesn't take normal vacations. She goes on excursions in pursuit of elusive erotica. As befitting a shame-filled subculture, sellers tend to be secretive.

At flea markets in European capitals such as Paris and Amsterdam, Wilzig, comfortable only in English, had a hard time smoking out the naughty stuff.

She considered pantomiming interest with descriptive hand gestures. Then her friend hit on a solution. He wrote out a cardboard sign in French saying, "I am buying erotic art." Wilzig hung it by a string around her neck.

The glum Gustavs and Guys behind the Parisian stalls lit up.

"They came flying out of their booths and beckoned me in," she says.

A couple of years ago, Wilzig quit playing tennis so that her aging knees couldn't compromise her search for erotica.

"It was more important for me to be mobile to get through the antique malls," she says.

* * *

It's a question you've wanted to ask. Does all this hanky-panky have the intended effect on Wilzig?

She says no. But on many of her visitors, it does. Couples touring her collection make excuses to leave early. But don't call her collection pornography.

"Erotic art shows talent, artistry, beauty, purposeful construction," Wilzig says. "Pornography delivers one message: "Let's have sex.' "

An example of purposeful construction adorns the wall beside her bed. It's a representation in pewter of acrobats copulating in a fleshy pyramid.

"Can you see how perfectly it's done?" she says, unscrewing the lamp shade beside her bed, sending a stream of light onto the pewter. The sculptor neglected no detail. "Can you see?"

She wants a lot more people to see. She's months away from opening a 12,000-square-foot World Erotic Art Museum in a vintage limestone building on South Beach's Washington Avenue in Miami Beach.

The city's zoning board consented in May. The board agreed the collection wasn't obscene, but kids under 18 will need parental escort.

It's symbolic of Wilzig's evolution from traditional housewife to artistic free thinker that she'll display these items a couple of miles from the old Fontainebleau, the haunt of her late husband. Money left by Siggi is bankrolling the museum. What began as her liberation is now the world's to share.

Her children have certainly grown more tolerant. Belgian daughter-in-law Karin gave her a foot-long phallus encrusted with Swarovski crystals. It towers on the coffee table beside its Clockwork Orange cousin.

"It's hidden away here. Unless I invite people back, the world doesn't see it," Wilzig says with a sweep of her hand over the gallery her living room has become. "I want it all out."

-- James Thorner can be reached at 813 909-4613 or thorner@sptimes.com

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