Wednesday - 10 February 2016

Decoding the oldest trick in the book

27 September 2011Written by ATG Reporter

THE largest 'Conjuring' sale seen in London for some time, at Bloomsbury Auctions on September 8, had at its core the 460-lot collection of the late Bob Read, a 'Close-Up Entertainer' and lecturer in the UK and USA who was a tireless researcher into the history of magic and conjuring.

Other properties added another 250 lots and produced some good results, not least the important Egyptian Hall [London] posters from the John Fisher collection, which sold at £4000.

In fact, this 268-lot section of the sale saw a higher proportion of lots sold, at 65% compared with just 57% of the Read lots, but Michael Heseltine, who catalogued the sale, remains convinced that the market is still strong and healthy.

Few could be better informed about magic at auction - Heseltine's experience in putting together such sales for Sotheby's began with the landmark Findlay sales in the old Chancery Lane salerooms in 1979-80, and more recently he has catalogued sales for both Bonhams and Bloomsbury Auctions.

Perhaps there was just too much on offer among the books, prints and paintings, trade cards, decorative objects, posters and apparatus. Multiple copies certainly dampened sales, with a tendency for commission and telephone bidders competing for the first offered example only, although the sale did see some strong bids.

The dominant theme of Read's collection across all categories, from prints and paintings to objects and apparatus, was the well-known 'Cups and Balls' trick, the subject of his now posthumous, but soon to be published study of The Oldest Trick in the Book.

The catalogue cover itself featured a detail from a painting of c.1875 by J.J.Z. Broos, in which the attractions of an 18th century fête in a Low Countries town include a tightrope walker, a Punch and Judy show and a conjuror performing the Cups and Balls trick. This fell short of the low estimate at £7500, but a tavern scene by Benjamin Fichel in which the trick is very much the focus of attention made a top-estimate £10,000.

The Magician, a very rare engraved version by Cornelis Bos of a Hieronymus Bosch painting (now in the Musée Municipal in Saint-Germain-en-Laye) in which accomplices steal the purse of an onlooker as the conjuror distracts his audience with his cups and ball tricks, made £4200. Read was able to trace only two other examples of this print - one sold at auction in Holland in 2002, the other in the Albertina in Vienna.

By Ian McKay

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