Portrait of 18th-century conjurer worked magic at Brunk

Portrait of the magician Chevalier Joseph Pinetti (1750-1800) sold for $24,000 (£18,800) at Brunk.

ASHVILLE, N.C. – A portrait of the magician Chevalier Joseph Pinetti (1750-1800) emerged for sale in North Carolina on January 10. The swaggering half-length image of the once internationally famous late 18th-century conjurer was an unexpected high performer at Brunk, selling well above the $2,000-$3,000 estimate to hammer for $24,000 ($30,720 with buyer’s premium).

A physics professor in Rome in his early years, Jean-Joseph Pinetti Willedale de Merci was key to the emergence of the professional magician in the 18th century. Through tireless self-promotion, flamboyant costumes and elaborate stage props, he created an entertainment form that moved from the streets and public squares into the theaters. Popular with the middle and upper classes, he made his fortune taking his act to the courts of Germany, France, England, Portugal, and Russia in the 1780s.

In this 4ft 10in by 3ft oil on canvas, Pinetti (described by a contemporary as ‘a short pudgy man whose demeanor was that of a king’) is depicted in the guise of a military general and nobleman. This was the faux costume he wore when arriving to great fanfare in the capitals of Europe, typically riding in a gilt coach drawn by four white horses. Such showmanship occasionally courted trouble: in Berlin, Pinetti was ordered to leave within 24 hours after upstaging a procession by Frederick the Great. The monarch said that the city was not large enough for both the King of Prussia and the King of Conjurers.

The book Pinetti holds in his hand is also a clue to the sitter. The title almost visible to the spine is Physical Amusements and Diverting Experiments, the text Penetti published in 1784 to explain some of his illusions and retaliate against would-be exposes penned by rivals.

To the bottom of the canvas is an inscription that includes many of Pinetti’s self-proclaimed titles, including Knight of the German Order of Merit of St. Philip, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, and advisor to the Prince of Limburg-Holstein. Housed in a giltwood and composition frame, it had labels to the verso for the early 20th century New York gallery M. Voruz de Vaux and was consigned from what the lot notes described as a ‘historic South Carolina plantation.’

The work ranks among the few known portraits of Chevalier Joseph Pinetti, whose image is typically shown through a series of French engravings. He died in relative poverty in Russia at the age of 50, having lost all of his money on building and experimenting with hot air balloons.