CHICAGO – Potter & Potter Auctions‘ June 19th circus and sideshow sale delivered jaw dropping results from start to finish. When the hammer fell for the last time after a day of spirited bidding, 72 lots realized $1,000-2,499; 22 lots scored $2,500-9,999; and three lots broke the $10,000 mark.
Antique circus and carnival related images took several of the top slots in this exciting sale, led by a quarter-plate daguerreotype of General Tom Thumb, which realized $18,000. The late 1840s image showed the performer standing on a table, one hand on his waist, the other grasping his lapel. It was one of only a handful of daguerreotypes of General Tom Thumb, whose real name was Charles Stratton, ever seen at auction, and the first with him as the solo subject since 2007.
Another antique photograph that sold well was a sixth-plate ambrotype of an unidentified strongman or weightlifter, which was estimated at $1,500-2,500 and made $7,800. This 19th century American example featured a shirtless man with a pair of barbells cradled in his arms, held at shoulder height. The photo was published in The Circus: 1870s-1950s.
Also of note was a British carte de visite from circa 1870 featuring a faux automaton Turk chess player, which was estimated at $150-300 and sold for $1,560. A contemporary note in its lower margin stated, “Automaton Chess Player/Crystal Palace.”
A fine archives of slides, photographs, and negatives were also stars of this sale, which included a collection of 35mm slides of midcentury American circus beauties and other performers. It was estimated at $300-$500 and made an astonishing $12,000. The lot included about 500 color slides of circus images, a significant portion being group and individual images of beautiful women of the shows in costumes.
The auction’s extraordinary lineup of vintage sideshow banners made a huge impression on buyers. A standout among standouts was a monumental We Expose the Fakes banner, which was estimated at $4,000-$6,000 and sold for $11,400. This example was illustrated with a full cast of sideshow performers, including a sword swallower, an alligator woman, a frog boy, a giraffe-neck woman, a rubber-necked man, a four-legged woman, a mermaid, and a half man.
Another honorable result was earned by Snap Wyatt’s painted canvas Facts, Fakes, Freaks sideshow banner, which tripled its high estimate to realize $6,000. It featured a line-up of masked, nude, and scantily clad women to lure visitors to the attraction. Snap Wyatt was one of the most prolific and popular painters of the sideshow era, renowned for his bold use of color and the sheer scale of his creations.
Outstanding antiques, ephemera, and posters brought this entertaining sale full circle, with an archive of 20th century American carnival and circus correspondence and letterhead selling for $2,880 against an estimate of $200-$400. It consisted of two binders containing more than 400 pieces of blank letterhead and signed correspondence from shows including James E. Strates, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Sells-Floto, Royal Amusements, and World of Mirth Shows, Inc.
Bringing the highlights to a spellbinding close is a lithographed poster of the reptile hypnotist Tanit Ikao with a snake coiled around her head. Estimated at $150-$250, it realized $1,680. This 1950s, linen backed example was printed by Lito Salles in Portugal.
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