CHICAGO – Potter & Potter Auctions‘ October 30 magic event generated jaw-dropping results. When the hammer fell for the last time, 49 lots scored $5,000-$20,000; 15 lots made $20,001-$99,999; and three lots sailed past the six figure mark.
Among the three lots that generated more than $100,000 each were the light and heavy chest owned and used by Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. Estimated at $50,000-$100,000, it delivered $156,000. Made in France in 1844, the hardwood box became light as a feather or immovable at the magician’s command.
Right behind it was Karl Germain’s blooming rose bush magic apparatus from 1900, which was estimated at $20,000-$30,000 and realized $132,000. This example was considered the most storied, poetic, and remarkable creations of Karl Germain, and arguably his best-known illusion.
The third high achiever was the vintage poster titled Houdini Upside Down in the Water Torture Cell, which was estimated at $30,000-$60,000 and traded hands at $108,000. The framed broadside featured a close-up inverted bust portrait of Houdini submerged in the water tank escape device that helped secure his reputation as a great escape artist.
Other extraordinary materials owned by Harry Houdini performed well. A clear standout was Houdini’s belt buckle, said to be the one he was wearing when he was taken to the hospital in Detroit after giving what would prove to be his final performance. It was estimated at $5,000-$10,000 and sold for $90,000.
Another winner was Houdini’s circa-1915 card star magic apparatus, which was estimated at $4,000-$8,000 and rose to $40,800. This device was owned and used by Houdini on his final tour in 1925 and 1926; he allotted six minutes of time on his program for its performance.
Stage-used apparatus from legacy American superstar magician Karl Germain (born Charles Mattmuller) earned attention from bidders, such as Germain’s gimmicked production derby, which realized more than six times its high estimate and sold for $6,600. The ordinary-looking hat had an interior that allowed it to be shown empty, yet moments later, yield a massive quantity of flowers, silks, and even small animals from within.
Materials from other legacy magicians and manufacturers also commanded strong prices. Of note was Harry Kellar’s Louis XIV-style gilded table, an elaborately decorated prop that housed 13 secret devices, including various traps, electrical connections, and pistons to control a Devil’s Head automaton. Estimated at $25,000-$35,000, it sold for $66,000.
Stanley Jaks’ Book of Mysteries from 1936 achieved an astonishing $96,000 against an estimate of $10,000-$15,000. The book holds two trays of miniature magic props Jaks used in many of his most famous routines, along with a plush-covered working surface that is said to be one of the first examples of a close-up mat.
Antique broadsides and ephemera promoting popular performers were another key category in this auction. The selection included a vintage poster of Harry Kellar, dubbed Levitation, which was estimated at $8,000-$10,000 and sold for $20,400. The half-sheet stone lithograph from 1894 was illustrated with bolts of lightning streaking from the magician’s hands toward his floating assistant before him.
Another popular piece was a lobby photograph of Chung Ling Soo, which doubled its high estimate to realize $24,000. The framed full-length portrait pictured Soo with his assistant Suee Seen, and a girl posing as their daughter, all three clad in Chinese robes.
A handbill titled Robert-Houdin. Soirees Fantastiques brought $66,000 against an estimate of $8,000-$12,000. This circa-1848 example promoted an appearance of the conjurer in London. Several bills similar to this piece are part of the Houdini papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, creating some conjecture that it was Houdini who dated the posters in blue pencil.
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