2652 AR Bamfords Houdini

Inscription verso on the silver padlock-shaped pocket watch stand congratulating Harry Houdini for his participation in ‘The Mirror Handcuff Challenge’ at the Hippodrome Theatre, London in March 1904, sold Bamfords £13,500.

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Marked for Grey & Co with the registration number 416422, it had an estimate of £600-800 but hammered down for £13,500 (plus buyer’s premium).

Two other uninscribed versions of this watch stand had sold recently: one at the Cotswold Auction Company in 2015 for £130 and the other at Noonans in March 2022 for £300. What made Bamfords lot so special was the inscription on the back Congratulations Harry Houdini, Completing the Challenge, Hippodrome Theatre, March 17th 1904, Daily Mirror’.

The illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (1874-1926) always insisted that it was the Birmingham locksmith Nathaniel Hart who gave him ‘one of the hardest tests’ he ever had.

The Mirror Handcuff Challenge

In March 1904, at the height of his fame, the Daily Mirror threw down the gauntlet and set him a challenge to free himself from a pair of steel handcuffs with a supposedly unpickable lock by Hart. Several leading locksmiths had inspected the solid steel shackles and agreed they had never seen such a brilliant or fiendish mechanism.

Houdini had refused three times to take up the challenge to escape from the cuffs while performing at a packed Hippodrome Theatre in London’s West End. However, he was eventually persuaded to return for a matinée show five days later, to pit his wits against the best of British craftmanship.

On March 17 – a week before his 30th birthday – in front of 4000 chanting fans, he took to the stage at the Hippodrome, proclaiming “I do not know whether I am going to get out or not. But I can assure you I am going to try my best.”

Houdini's struggle

Houdini disappeared into his stage cabinet, which he called his ‘ghost house’, to embark on his escape as the band began to play. After 22 minutes the star’s face poked out – but only to get a better look at the lock in the strong electric light.

As the clock reached 35 minutes Houdini emerged again, his collar broken and sweat pouring down his face, but the cuffs remained in place – he insisted he was not done, and after a total of an hour and 10 minutes he emerged triumphant, his hands free from the contraption. The crowd erupted and Houdini was carried around the arena reportedly sobbing.

Following ‘The Mirror Handcuff Challenge’, the newspaper later presented him with a silver replica of the cuffs and he responded with a grateful telegram. “I must say it was one of the hardest, but at the same time one of the fairest, tests I ever had” he wrote. The original cuffs and the silver replica are now in David Copperfield’s private ‘Magic Museum’ in Las Vegas.