No joke: John Oliver wants Yorker's rat erotica, and he's willing to pay top dollar
In the 1980s and early 1990s, a then-York-based artist named Brian Swords donated a number of pieces to local PBS station WITF's former art auction, including paintings that featured anthropomorphized rats, many in erotic embraces.
Now comedian John Oliver of "Last Week Tonight" has announced he wants a piece of Swords' rat erotica — a watercolor titled "Stay Up Late" — and is willing to pay quite a bit for it. Swords goes by the artist name Biohazard.
"If you or someone you know is the owner of this illustrious work of art, please email firstname.lastname@example.org," the show posted Monday on its Facebook page. "We are offering $1,000 to the owner, and $20,000 to their nearest food bank. We make a lot of jokes, but this is not one of them."
When sold publicly during WITF TV's 1992 fundraising art auction called "Gallery 33," the piece fetched $80 from a Harrisburg man, according to video from the televised auction.
"Stay Up Late" and other watercolors auctioned by WITF suggest or flat-out show sexual acts between humanized rats. Other Swords pieces auctioned by WITF include "Surfacing," "The Smell of Wet Fur," "Sheets and Pillowcases" and "Exchanging Fluids."
'Delightful': One Gallery 33 auction host didn't think the paintings' subject matter was necessarily sexual.
"His cartoon characters are delightful," she said. "And I think he lets us imagine whatever we'd like. ... These two rats are jumping out of the water (in 'Surfacing'). And they are having a good time."
In the background, people in the studio can be heard laughing.
"Stay Up Late," which is 24 inches wide by 18 inches high, depicts a "normal human activity (that) needs very little description," another Gallery 33 host told viewers.
Neither Swords nor "Last Week Tonight" responded Monday to messages seeking comment.
"I want 'Stay Up Late' by Brian Swords of York," Oliver told viewers during his Sunday-night show. "I want that piece of art hanging behind me on this wall next week. And if I don't get it, I will keep looking for it. Because this is America."
In an interview about five years ago with Dogpatch Press, Swords said he was a fan of WITF's general-merchandise auction going back to the 1970s. And so in 1980, after WITF began dedicating certain auctions to work by local artists, Swords began donating art with various anthropomorphized animals, he said.
By 1988, "I had settled on two particular rat characters, Alice and Bob," he told Dogpatch Press. "That was also the year I added some mild erotic themes to my imagery."
Swords said during the interview that his pieces began becoming more erotic.
"Finally, in 1993 I went too far ... and complaints were phoned in," he told Dogpatch Press, and he was told no more genitalia would be permitted. "After the rule change, I stopped donating to WITF altogether."
Anyone with information about the painting's whereabouts can contact "Last Week Tonight" on its Facebook Page. Tipsters can also alert The York Dispatch on its Facebook page, or message this reporter.
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.