Joseph Pinetti 

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

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The swaggering half-length depiction of the once internationally famous late 18th century conjurer was the unexpected high-performer at Brunk on January 10, selling well above the $2,000-$3,000 estimate at $24,000 (£18,800).

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 theatres. Popular with the middle and upper classes, he made his fortune taking his act across to courts of Germany, France, England, Portugal and Russia in the 1780s.

In this 4ft 10in x 3ft oil on canvas Pinetti (described by a contemporary as ‘a short pudgy man whose demeanour 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.

Joseph Pinetti 

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

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 Pinetti published in 1784 to explain some of his illusions and retaliate against ‘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 on the back for the early 20th century New York gallery M. Voruz de Vaux and came for sale from a ‘historic South Carolina plantation’.

This picture ranks among the few known portraits of Chevalier Joseph Pinetti whose image is typically shown through a series of French engravings. He died in relatively poverty in Russia aged 50 having lost all of his money building and experimenting with hot air balloons.

Joseph Pinetti 

The inscription to a portrait of the magician Chevalier Joseph Pinetti (1750-1800) sold for $24,000 (£18,800) at Brunk.