Worlds of Wonder - Collecting Magic Memorabilia
Magicana is an area of memorabilia encompassing paraphernalia related to magicians, illusionists, prestidigitators, conjurors, mentalists and escape artists, and the practice of magic as a performance art throughout history.****Wikicollecting takes a look at the appeal of this enchanting memorabilia, some of its greatest practitioners, and the continued popularity of magicana collecting. We enlist the help of expert Gabe Fajuri, magician, author, and president of magicana specialists Potter & Potter Auctions (http://potterauctions.com).
Performances we would now recognise as conjuring and sleight of hand have been practiced for centuries, both as entertainment, and to fool and frighten people. The culture of the entertaining illusionist took off in earnest during the 18th century. Magic progressed from the sphere of street and circus acts into sophisticated drawing room entertainment, and the golden age of magic, considered to span 1875-1930, was born.
The Magic Circle formed in 1905. This prestigious organisation for magicians has strict rules of secrecy regarding magic tricks, and members must swear against exposure.
Magic moved easily from the realm of theatre into that of television, and the 21st century boasts numerous popular television celebrity magicians.
The long history of magic has produced an impressive array of memorabilia, including the posters advertising the shows, books written on the subject, props, equipment and apparatus used by magicians in their acts, or the personal belongings of the illusionists themselves.
Gabe Fajuri believes that the appeal of magicana to collectors ‘has to do with either owning a piece of history – i.e. something owned by a great performer – or buying back your childhood (i.e. owning something you could never when a child), or simply wanting an object – book, poster, or prop – due to the aesthetic appeal of the thing’.
The secrecy inherent in the world of magic performance may be another key reason that people are so drawn to it. Collectors of Magicana want to uncover the means and methods of performances that trick the mind into believing something impossible has occurred.
Many collectors are magicians themselves, keen to keep the secrets within the Magic Circle, reverential to the great names that shaped the history of illusion.
Some examples of the most popular areas of magicana collecting include but are not limited to the following:
Vintage magic posters
The advertisement posters produced to promote magic shows, particularly those dating from the golden age of magic, are some of the most impressive posters available to collectors. Generally striking colour lithographs, these often depict either formal portraits of the magicians, or illustrations of their stage tricks.
Posters for magic shows were intended to excite the public, to grow an audience in anticipation of the magician’s arrival in town. When the show was finished, the posters were either ripped down or plastered over with new posters, making surviving examples something of a rarity.
The Strobridge Lithography Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, was renowned as the best magic poster printers of their time. They received acclaim in the early 1900s as the poster designers for Harry Kellar, and later Howard Thurston, both of whom used the tagline ‘The Great Magician’.
Thurston posters are among those most commonly seen at auction. One such poster detailing the trick ‘Eggs Extraordinary’, dating from 1910, sold for $18,000 in December 2012. A Thurston lithograph advertising his performance alongside Okito (Theo Bamberg) the great ‘Shadowist’ sold for $20,400 at Potter & Potter. Reproductions can be purchased for as little as $10, though these will not hold their value like the originals.
Another notable magic poster company was the Otis Litho Co of Cleveland, Ohio. They produced the posters for Charles Carter, known as Carter the Great. These are particularly colourful and bright.
Another sought-after poster is that of the mind reader Alexander, often pictured as a disembodied head wrapped in a turban.
As with so many magic collectibles, the posters of Harry Houdini are among the most desirable, and can command six figure sums. They often picture him looking debonair as he escapes from chains, water torture cells, or performs card tricks. A billboard depicting him in a straight jacket to illustrate one of his most famous escape tricks sold for $27,500 in 2008.
While the posters advertising the most well-known magicians fetch tens of thousands, it is possible to hunt down some of these antique wonders for considerably less. But be wary of the widespread reproductions of these posters - make sure you are not taken in by a reproduction passing itself off as real.
It is believed that more books have been published on the subject of magic than any other performing art. Antique magic books are a fascinating area of bibliophilic collecting, and books continue to be written. The earliest one is thought to have been written in 1335, describing the magic that Abu-Abdulah Mohmed witnessed during his travels in Asia and Africa. The earlier books are, as a general rule, the most sought-after and valuable as they were less likely to have been mass produced, and may have been owned by several magicians.
Many antique magic books were working copies, used by magicians. Therefore they often include annotations, underlining and notes, which many consider an addition to their charm. If they come from the library of a well-known magician, and are signed, this can add a great amount of value to them. The nature of magic means that books are often passed down from magician to magician so can include more than one autograph and more than one set of notes. This type of provenance makes magic books especially interesting to collectors.
Catalogues of magic supplies and magazines also have a collecting audience.
Props, equipment and apparatus
Many magicians rely heavily on props and equipment in the performance of their acts. This provides a fertile ground for collectors, from tricks produced for amateurs to practice with, to large-scale stage sets used by the greats. Tricks produced for amateurs in the last half a century can be picked up for a relatively cheap price, while the well-stocked prop case of master magician Dai Vernon fetched $16,000 at Potter & Potter auction in 2010.
Many magicana collectors focus on famous magicians, masters of transformation, restoration, teleportation, escape, levitation, penetration, or prediction. Just a few examples of the many greats available and popular amongst collectors include:
Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin
The father of modern magic is considered to be Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871). He was a French clockmaker, who brought magical performance from the streets and circus side shows into the elegant drawing room setting that heralded the dawn of the golden age of magic. A signed copy of his book ‘Confidences d'un Prestidigitateur par Robert-Houdin’ sold for $30,000 in 2011.
Herrmann the Great
The stereotypical appearance of a magician was established by Alexander Herrmann (1844-1896), known as Herrmann the Great. His signature top hat sitting above wavy hair, an imperial beard and handlebar moustache, Victorian-style evening clothes with a tailcoat and gloves, have become the symbolic garb of the art form. A Hermann the Great lithograph portrait poster sold for $20,000 at Swann Auction Galleries in 2005.
Houdini (who gave himself this stage name in honour of Robert-Houdin) was at the forefront of performances of illusion and escapology at the start of 20th century. His acts are iconic and legendary, and he is perhaps the best known magic practitioner in history.
Gabe Fajuri of Potter & Potter auctions states: ‘Houdini is the most popular figure, hands down. He appeals to everyone from the specialist to the causal collector, and everyone in between. His appeal is universal’.
The straight jacket Houdini escaped from in one famous act sold for $22,000 at Guernsey’s in May 2008, and at the same auction the packing crate he escaped from and his personal packing trunk sold for $20,000 apiece, and a prison cell lock and key from the London prison cell he escaped from sold for $16,000.
Dai Vernon: The Professor
The Canadian Dai Vernon, aka The Professor (1894-1992), is considered among the most influential 20th century magicians, a master of sleight of hand techniques. As mentioned, his prop case fetched $16,000 in 2010. His linking rings, from his famous Symphony of the Rings act, sold for $8,000 in 2012.
P. T. Selbit
P. T. Selbit performed the first ever sawing-in-half, a trick now synonymous with magic, in 1921. He is particularly known for his inventiveness and entrepreneurial instinct, and is credited with designing many stage illusions. A 1905 poster advertising ‘P.T. Selbit’s Mighty Cheese’ sold for $1,500 in 2004.
Female magicians, and there were several who were as respected as their male counterparts during the golden age, are less collected and therefore a good focus for a new collector or those on a budget. Dell O’Dell was the stage name of Nell Newton (1902-1962). She was a pioneer among female magicians and performers of all kinds. She was also one of the first magicians to appear on television. Her act included snappy chat and little rhymes. She was known as The World’s Leading Lady Magician, and The Queen of Magic. An archive of Dell O’Dell notebooks, scrapbooks and photographs sold for $3,900 at Potter & Potter auctions in 2008.
Chung Ling Soo
The Marvellous Chinese Conjurer Chung Ling Soo, was in fact a Scotsman from New York called William Ellsworth Robinson. He performed tricks that a real Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo had made famous, and maintained his Chinese role scrupulously, off stage and on. He is best known for his tragic death, after a bullet catch trick went disastrously wrong. A Chung Ling Soo lithograph poster picturing the conjurer juggling three paper lanterns which spell out his name sold for $8,500 in 2005.
A new magicana collector?
If you decide to collect magicana, it is important to study the rich history of magic. You will learn who the great names are, their most admirable tricks and performances, and gain an understanding of what you are most interested in. A good starting point is the reference work Milbourne Christopher’s The Illustrated History of Magic. There is also a helpful online Magicpedia. Take a look at the Magic Collectors Association. It has hundreds of members around the world interested in the history of magicians and magic as a performing art. Members are serious magicana collectors, so could be a valuable resource for a new collector. They also publish a journal, and hold a bi-annual gathering, the Magic Collectors' Weekend.
Your studies will allow you to focus your collection. You may choose to focus on one timeframe, one specific magician, one type of magicana, or signed items.
Gabe Fajuri provides this advice: ‘Buy what you like, and realise that spending a lot of money of an item is not necessarily the best way to get started. There are many beautiful vintage stone lithographs advertising George, Carter, and other magicians that are relatively easy to find, and not too expensive. But that does not lessen the fact that they are beautiful objects with stories to tell, and are collectible all the same’.
EBay has made it easier for collectors to find items of magicana. However, they can be less easily verified. There are some shops that stock magic books, posters, photographs etc, but these are rare.
Looking at some well respected but lesser known magicians may be a good place to start. Often memorabilia relating to these performers is sold off as a bulk job lot, for example a selection of signed photographs, programmes, or posters. This is a cost effective method of collecting, and you may come across some hidden gems.
A truly dedicated collector may set upon the path to becoming a magician, gaining items passed down to them from others within the Magic Circle.
For a burgeoning collector, especially one on a budget, it may be beneficial to focus on current magicians. Visit magic shows, keep your ticket stubs and programmes, get one of the advertisement posters signed by the magician. The magicians of today could well become the Houdinis of tomorrow.
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