Value of early magic collectibles is no illusion

Harry Houdini’s most famous trick was the Water Torture Cell. An original poster publicizing it made $95,000 at Potter & Potter Auctions in February 2017. Photo courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — From Cardini and the Great Blackstone to David Blaine and Criss Angel, skilled magicians and illusionists have dazzled audiences for more than a century, performing simple sleight-of-hand and tricks as well as daring and elaborate illusions. The great Harry Houdini was famous for extracting himself after being hung upside down in his Water Torture Cell, a feat no other magician dared tackle during his lifetime; and in 1983, before a live audience and millions on television, David Copperfield appeared to make the Statue of Liberty, which stands over 300 feet tall, vanish into thin air.

Collectors have always been drawn to the obscure, offbeat and curious, so it’s no surprise that magic collectibles are so popular. Ranging from advertising posters of magic acts, props and souvenirs to items belonging to magicians, especially those used on-stage, magic collectibles enjoy continued success, especially in the auction market.

Magic Machines’ Disappearing Disc with string cutter and magic spirals, 1948, sold for $22,000 in September 2015 at Potter & Potter Auctions. Photo courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Gabe Fajuri, co-founder of Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago, which specializes in playing cards, gambling memorabilia and magicana — the term for antiques and collectibles relating to magic and magicians — said early items are among the most collectible. “Items dating to before 1900 always draw serious interest, but so do objects made by famous factories and builders of props,” he said. “For example, the wood-turned tricks manufactured by Floyd Thayer command high prices regularly.”

In 1907, Thayer (1877-1959) launched the Thayer Magic Company that made magical wands and props as well as magic tricks throughout the 1920s and 1930s, even offering a trick-of-the month club. He also briefly dabbled in selling high-illusions to magicians. Magic shops proliferated and one of the most famous was Martinka’s in New York City, established in 1877, and later owned by Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss) at one time. Amateur and professional magicians browsed the aisles here, finding everything from handcuffs to hankies that transformed into eggs as well as supplies to make the well-known cups and balls trick, which reportedly dates back centuries.

Props rate highly among desirable magicana. “Let’s not forget props used by famous magicians. Historical significance and association to great magicians of the past always draw the attention of serious collectors,” Fajuri said.

Magician Karl Germain’s work trunk and magic apparatus, circa 1905, nearly tripled its high estimate to bring $29,000 at Potter & Potter Auctions in June 2017. Photo courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In 2017, Potter & Potter sold a “work” trunk and magic apparatus set, circa 1905, for $29,000, nearly three times its high estimate. Renowned Chautauqua and Lyceum magician Karl Germain owned and used the large metal-bound travel trunk, which featured three trays, two of which still housed the tools of his trade. Highlights included a beaver top hat with an inner pocket for “changing” one object into another, a large spun-brass rice vase, magic wands, and a couple sets of diminishing and trick cards.

Besides props, other magic items are sought after. “There is a very strong market for posters, photographs, autographs, and correspondence. Anything connected to the rich history of magic is, to some degree, of interest to collectors. Props are but one part of a small but vibrant market,” Fajuri said.

A Harry Houdini archive of 14 signed letters relating debunking a psychic sold in October 2014 at Profiles in History for $25,000. Photo courtesy of Profiles in History and LiveAuctioneers

Some magicians are famous even well after their death, most notably Harry Houdini. He came to America from his native Hungary as a child and rose to a level of fame that was nearly unheard of in his day. A well-known poster of Harry Houdini simply states his name, with no other text under his portrait. That’s how recognizable he was. “Houdini material — be it posters, autographs, photographs, handcuffs, or anything else associated with his career is clearly the most collectible in the field. But there is strong competition for other magicians of his era, like Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Dante (Harry Jansen), and Max Malini,” Fajuri noted.

Other magicians who worked the circuit might be forgotten today but for the vintage posters that once peppered towns along their route, promoting their acts. Passionate collectors of magicana have preserved these moments and even some institutions. The American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Mich., has a good collection of vintage posters of both famous and now-obscure performers. One of its posters advertises Ellen Armstrong, a second-generation magician.

Her father, J. Hartford Armstrong (1876-1939) is notable as an African-American magician who worked the East Coast from the late 1880s till 1939, when he died. After his passing, Ellen Armstrong, who had been her dad’s assistant, took over and continued as the headline, giving her the distinction as the first and only black woman of her era in this profession.

Even a magician’s stage outfit is highly collectible. Born Richard Valentine Pitchford (1895-1973), Cardini (as he was known on stage) was a popular magician of the 20th century who plied his trade for nearly 50 years. When he debuted at New York’s Palace Theater in the late 1920s, Cardini’s showy attire and man-about-town look became the standard to which all other magicians were compared. A custom-made tuxedo and costume he wore in many performances sold in April 2013 for $60,000.

This “Thurston, Kellar’s Successor” poster, 1908, depicting when Thurson received Kellar’s “mantle” of magic, brought $16,000 in June 2016 at Potter & Potter Auctions. Photo courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

It is wise to seek an expert opinion when first venturing into the field of magicana. Given the secrecy magicians hold over their magic, it can be tough (without solid provenance) to determine if an item was an actual magic trick used on stage or simply a souvenir. That said, magic continues to inspire wonder in audiences, and collecting of magicana can conjure the joy of childhood and that first experience of seeing a magician perform a jaw-dropping illusion that seemed so real.

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