The Hot Bid: Magician automaton from 1972 film ‘Sleuth’

CHICAGO – A magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 motion picture Sleuth will step back into the spotlight as a star attraction of Potter & Potter’s August 24 auction, with absentee and live online bidding through LiveAuctioneers. There are expectations that it could sell for as much as $60,000. Here’s its backstory.

Full view of Sleuth automaton. Potter & Potter image

What you see: A circa 1925-1930 magician automaton built in Paris that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, which starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It stands 56 1/2 inches tall and performs seven movements. Potter & Potter estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

I wanted to start by asking why so many automata have a magic theme. How much overlap is there between magic trick designers and designers of automata? Why do automata fit well within the realm of performative magic? I guess I’d say because by nature, they’re magical objects, so they lend themselves to performing magic tricks. How they work, why they work–it’s all a wonder-making proposition. Magic and automata have kind of gone hand in hand for centuries.

What, if anything, do we know about why this automaton was made? Also, who might have purchased or commissioned this piece—what sort of person was likeliest to buy something like this when it was new? I don’t have the name in front of me, but he [the person who ordered it] had a number of commissions from JAF [the Parisian company believed to have built this automaton]. He wanted something special. It’s larger than many others out there. I think he was interested in automata. I don’t think he was a magician at all.

Is it reasonable to assume that this automaton was a custom commission, given its size and the number of movements it performs? Or are automata generally created as one-offs? There are catalogs of automata going back over a century. In the sale, we have a peacock that walks around, spreads its feathers, and keeps walking. In the Roullet & Decamps catalog, it was offered in three different sizes. That doesn’t mean there was a storage room that had 500 of each [size] sitting on the shelves. [The catalog said], ‘Here’s what we can do for you.’ They’d build them as they got orders, or they’d build six and when they ran out, they’d build six more.

Magician lifts hat to reveal a rabbit. Potter & Potter image

But would this magician automaton have been custom made, judging by its size and the number of movements it performs? I don’t think the movements point to that, but the size and the finish point to it being a custom commission. There are automata that are similarly complex or a lot more complex. It’s large and finely finished. I’m sure it was built to the specifications of the customer.

Why might someone have commissioned a large automaton such as this one? I believe this was for a private collector, but many were meant to be in shop windows, something to attract attention. It was a business expense, but it was an employee who required no salary. Hopefully people in the pre-television era would stop and be fascinated by what they saw.

How do we know this was built in Paris between 1925 and 1930? I was given the information by the consignor. Between his research and the [expertise of the] person who was working on his automata, I believe that’s how they pieced it together.

Does its large size–it stands almost five feet tall–hint at how it might have been usedAnd would its size have been harder to make than most automata? It’s perfect for use in a film, of course, because it’s a background player. I don’t think its size made it harder to build. I think it made it easier to build. There’s just more room [to hide the works].

The lot notes for the automaton from Sleuth say it has eight movements. Is that a lot for an automaton? And what are the movements? It’s on the higher end. I don’t mean to put it down–it’s certainly a complex mechanism. What I mean to say is it’s not playing checkers with anyone. It’s not elaborate. [Fajuri later corrects the total to seven movements, which include: moving its head up and down; moving its head back and forth; moving its lips; moving its eyes; an arm moving a wand; an arm moving a cone; and items changing under the table. If you wanted to count this last as a separate movement for every object the magician automaton produces, it would add several to the total. You can see the automaton performing in this video.]

But the more movements there are, the more chances that something will break or go wrong… Absolutely, the more complex it is, the more complex it is. But in Paris at the time, certainly [the first owner] had a choice of people in a three-mile radius to fix it. They were in spitting distance of each other.

Does the magician automaton from Sleuth still perform all its movements? Yes.

Magician lifts hat to reveal a cup and ball. Potter & Potter image

Does it perform the movements in a set order, or can you choose which ones it does? It’s a set order, as is the case with most automata.

What can we tell by looking about how difficult it was to make? By watching it from the outside, you can’t tell anything, which is the point.

How original is this magician automaton from Sleuth? And how unusual is it for a nearly hundred-year-old automaton to retain its fabric elements–its original costume and turban? Earlier examples in the [August 24 auction] catalog are more remarkable for retaining their clothes. It had things that needed tending to when [the consigner] bought it. It got a tune-up and a polishing as opposed to an entirely new “chassis.” But we’ve sold automata that have been missing 50 percent of their works.

Do any of the symbols on the front and the top of the table mean anything? Are they just gibberish? I believe they’re gibberish. They’re not recognizable to me.

What, if anything, do we know about how this automaton was chosen to appear in the film Sleuth? We don’t really have additional information.

Do we know if the filmmakers tweaked the automaton for the movie, or built a backup model? Not that we’re aware of.

What’s it like in person? It’s scary. He’s not smiling. He has a furrowed brow, and a stern, serious look. It’s the kind of thing where if you walk into the gallery before you turn on the lights and [you] feel someone standing there. It’s kind of scary.

Magician shown in full length, side view. Potter & Potter image

Does it make noise? It’s not all that noticeable, but you do hear the mechanics working. It’s not distracting.

What’s your favorite detail of the magician automaton from Sleuth? You mentioned it already. It’s the carving in the table. It shows an extra level of care that the builder went to to make it special. It adds an extra level of quality and craft to what could be a plain, wooden table, or could have had a cloth thrown over it. It adds to the charm, and adds a mysterious element to it.

Is it heavy? Yeah. It’s not 500 pounds or anything, but it requires a few people to move it.

How did you arrive at the $40,000 to $60,000 estimate? It was difficult. It was at Skinner in 2008 and sold for $40,000, which was a help. Like a lot of things we sell, there’s not a huge track record to compare it to. We seem to be the place that writes the books on a lot of things we sell. The Skinner auction record was the only one we could find.

How do other magician automata you’ve handled compare to this magician automaton from Sleuth? It’s the largest, and on the auction day, it may be the most expensive we’ve ever sold. Sleuth was nominated for four Academy Awards. It was a pretty serious film with well-known actors. Laurence Olivier was no slouch. It’s fair to say more people saw it in the film than ever saw it in a store window.

So it’s in the upper ranks? I’d say so, yes. The way it does its tricks is amazing in its own right. Other automata in the auction do similar tricks, but when you combine that with its history, its size, and its aesthetics, it’s certainly right up there. It’s got a lot going for it.

How to bid: The automaton from Sleuth is Lot 45 in the auction Automata: Life and Other Illusion taking place August 24, 2019.

In case you missed it above, here’s some film of the magician automaton in action.

Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a rare book from the creator of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, a Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout–a device for cheating at cards–which sold for $9,000a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.

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By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction. Follow her on Twitter at @SGSwritereditor.