Erotic Photography Collection | Forbes

The erotic photographer Araki Nobuyoshi is so famous in Tokyo that strangers accost him on the street to have him shoot them in the nude. So he avoids the daylight and spends his nights at a cramped bar he owns in the city's red-light district, surrounded by nubile female models. Four years ago one of his foremost collectors, the Houston investment manager Don Sanders, paid him a visit. "Araki spoke somewhere between zero and no English," Sanders recalls, but that didn't make any difference. Sanders pulled out his camera and they both started taking pictures together, communicating perfectly through the shared language of photography.

Before making his fortune in securities, Sanders planned to be a photographer, attending Sam Houston State College on a $300-a-year photography scholarship supplemented with the cash he earned shooting weddings. "Then I got to thinking that I didn't want to work on weekends, so I switched to business," he says. But he remained enamored of photography, especially female nudes, and in 2002 he finally made his first serious purchase--of four Helmut Newton prints.

He swiftly made up for lost time, amassing more than 10,000 pictures by nearly 150 photographers over the next dozen years. Highlights of his $7 million collection include fine art nudes by Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lucien Clergue, Jock Sturges and David Levinthal, as well as thousands of prints acquired from the Playboy archive. "The sheer dogged pursuit-- I've never seen anything like it," says Christie's photography specialist Laura Paterson, who is organizing a series of live and online sales of his collection beginning in September. "Don has a voracious appetite for the female form. It has to be one of the largest collections of nudes in private hands anywhere."

Sanders collects in depth, often amassing every image from a photo shoot, including those the photographer didn't select. "With Helmut Newton, I have photographs that you'd recognize from magazines or books," he says, "but I'll also have eight or ten where the position of the leg or head is different." In addition, he's chased down related ephemera. For instance, in the case of Newton's epic "Bergstrom Over Paris" (1976), he has not only the 44-by-64-inch aluminum-mounted print--estimated at $200,000 to $300,000--but also the same image, much reduced, in the original pictorial spread for Newton's book SUMO. And for the photographer's 1980 Big Nudes series--with a presale estimate of between $150,000 and $250,000--Sanders also has test shots and a letter written to him by Newton explaining his inspiration. (The series was originally titled The Terrorists and modeled on mugshots of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.)

After a dozen years of relentless accumulation, Sanders says he's selling the beloved collection because "I'd much rather orchestrate its sale while I'm alive." He hopes especially to increase the visibility of the lesser-known photographers, many of whom are now close friends. Not that he's parting ways completely. As his crates head to Christie's, he's holding back a small personal stash of 150 prints by Helmut Newton--plus another thousand by his pal Araki.