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Two significant single-owner collections featuring items related to magic and illusionism came up for auction in the US within days of each other.

First off on October 27-28 was Sotheby’s (26/21/14.9% buyer’s premium) New York sale of the collection of Ricky Jay (1946- 2018). This well-known magician, author and scholar collected books, manuscripts, posters and other printed material relating to the history of magic, illusionism, popular entertainment and esoteric curiosities.

Then on October 30 in Chicago, Potter & Potter (20% buyer’s premium) offered the first part of the extensive Salon de Magie collection of Ken Klosterman (1933-2020).

Lifelong career

Jay had a lifelong career in magic spanning five decades. Introduced to magic by his amateur magician grandfather, he first performed for the Society of American Magicians at age four and was on TV aged seven.

He went on to perform in comedy clubs and as an opener for musicians and rock bands. His one-man shows directed by David Mamet were widely acclaimed and he appeared in a number of feature films.

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The magician, author, scholar and collector Ricky Jay (1946-2018).

Photo: Myles Aronowitz & Lisa Levart

Jay built up his collection during his spare time while touring, visiting print and book shops as well as other collectors and magicians. He also wrote a number of books, contributed to other publications and curated several exhibitions featuring items from his collection.

The two days of auctions at Sotheby’s for Jay’s collection offered 633 lots and totalled $3.8m including premium with a selling rate of 94% by volume. The auction house said bidding came from 12 countries with over 300 bidders participating including institutions and private collectors.

With so much on offer there were opportunities to buy at all price points and while a number of lots (some detailed here) sailed way past their guides there were also plenty that went within estimate.

Although printed material, both vintage and antiquarian, dominated Jay’s collection the top lot in the sale at Sotheby’s was a modern piece of magic apparatus.

Neppy was Jay’s bespoke automaton constructed for him by Alan Wakeling in the 1980s. The 2ft 7in (78cm) high automaton was the veteran of hundreds of performances in the stage show Ricky Jay and His 52 assistants.

Sotheby’s guided the piece at $10,000-15,000 but it ended up selling for no less than $160,000 (£115,940). (Sotheby’s catalogue noted that all rights to use this automaton in a performance are retained by the Estate of Ricky Jay.)

While Jay tended to collect material related to more obscure performers, he had a selection of items related to Harry Houdini (1874-1926), arguably the most famous name in the field of escapology and illusionism and these featured prominently among the best sellers in the auction.

Posters advertising his spectacular feats accounting for five of the 10 highest prices. The most expensive at $120,000 (£86,955) was the poster illustrating Houdini upside down in the water torture cell, a rare specimen that showed just the face and arm of the submerged escapologist performing his most dangerous exploit.

But another poster promoting the same feat, a German lithographed example for the Circus Busch from 1913 billed as Houdini’s ‘newest sensation’, is the first depiction of this celebrated escape which was introduced at the circus in September 1912. This 2ft 2½in x 2ft 11¼in (65 x 90cm) poster shows Houdini being lowered into the tank and realised $42,000 (£30,435), over three times the estimate.

Also in demand were the earliest Houdini posters in Jay’s collection dating from 1895. One showed Metamorphosis, his first great illusion which he performed with his wife Beatrice with the couple swapping places in a locked trunk. The trick was perfected while the recently married Houdinis toured the East Coast with Welsh Brothers Circus. The 2ft 4in x 21in (71 x 53cm) poster laid on linen sold for $60,000 (£43,480), double the estimate.

The other poster of the same size titled Harry Houdini King of Cards depicts him as a card magician, before he gained fame as an escapologist. Thought to be the earliest solo depiction of Houdini, it realised $48,000 (£34,780) against a $20,000-30,000 guide.

The most expensive of the selection of early books in Jay’s collection was a very rare first edition of 1584 of Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a treatise on the subject which disputes the existence of witches. It sold for $80,000 (£57,970).

Hocus Pocus Junior was a popular work issued in numerous editions in the 17th century. One of these, a 1683 edition printed in Holborn, London, with numerous woodcut illustrations to the text and featuring an armorial bookplate of the Earls of Macclesfield, Shirburn Castle, dated 1860, realised $50,000 (£36,230), way over the $8000-12,000 predicted.

Among the many curiosities in the collection was an impressive ensemble of over 460 prints of ‘Remarkable Persons’ featuring performers, criminals, conmen, social and political figures, and others both famous and infamous spanning the mid 17th to early 19th century.

These had been compiled by William Esdaile (1758-1837) the most important print collector of his day, bound into two volumes and extensively annotated. The collection was hammered down at $75,000 (£54,345) against an estimate of $100,000-150,000.

Jay was also particularly fascinated by Matthias Buchinger (1674-1740) who, despite having no hands or legs and being just 2ft 5in tall, was an accomplished magician and artist. Jay assembled a collection of his work which featured in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2016 and also wrote a book titled Matthais Buchinger: The Great German Living.

While the Buchinger lots did not all fly in the same way as some of the other works, one or two made substantial sums like the elaborate version of his own family tree depicted here.

Baker bewitched

Although magic had fascinated him since childhood and he started out as a professional magician, Klosterman then moved into the family baking business, establishing a highly successful baking chain in the Cincinnati region.

He was introduced into the field of collecting magic and studying its history in the 1970s when, on a business trip to Chicago, he met Robert Lund and John Henry Grossman who were attending one of the first Magic Collectors’ Weekends at Magic, Inc.

Over the course of the next five decades he assembled an impressive collection that ranged widely. It spanned the actual nuts and bolts of magicians’ working apparatus and personal items that belonged to famous performers such as Houdini, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin and Harry Kellar as well as magicians of more recent vintage plus books, posters and prints and a wealth of other magic-related material.

The collection, which he called his Salon de Magie, was housed in a private museum below his house in suburban Cincinnati with a stage for private shows. Well known in the magic world, Klosterman was also friends with many of the most famous magicians of the 20th century and his collection became a magnet for magicians the world over.

Souvenirs and personal items of memorabilia and stage apparatus from famous magicians were at the top of the list in Potter & Potter’s sale of the first instalment of the Klosterman collection.

The auction in Chicago numbered 346 lots and was a white-glove event totalling $1.9m including premium.

Potter & Potter’s Gabe Fajuri said: “The buyers cut a cross-section from collectors to dealers to institutions, but primarily it was individual collectors buying in the auction, many of whom are magicians (either professionals or amateurs).”

Topping the bill was an early 19th century piece of apparatus used by the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-71), regarded as the father of modern magic. His Light and Heavy chest, a hardwood prop from 1844 that was rendered light as a feather or immovable depending on the magician’s command, realised $130,000 (£94,200).

Several pieces of apparatus and equipment relating to the American magician Karl Germain (Charles Mattmuller 1878-1959) were also among the sale’s best-sellers.

These included the c.1900 apparatus for Germain’s Blooming Rose Bush, arguably his best-known illusion, made by his father, that realised $110,000 (£79,710), far in excess of the $20,000-30,000 guide.

Other top-selling Germain artefacts include his self-decapitation head prop, a lifelike resemblance to the magician in papier mâché, that realised $10,000 (£7245), and his magic wand made in 1900 by his father that took $18,000 (£13,045)

A prop table used by the American magician Harry Kellar (1849-1922) was also a high flyer.

The elaborate gilt piece, superficially looking like a French antique table, in fact housed around 13 secret devices including traps, electrical connections, and pistons to control a devil’s head automaton. It sold for $55,000 (£39,855).

A leather-bound Book of Mysteries from 1936 that had belonged to Stanley Jaks (1903-60), in which he kept two trays of miniature props that were used in many of his best known routines, was propelled far past its $10,000-15,000 guide to take $80,000 (£57,970).

Houdini memorabilia inevitably featured in the collection and made some of the other top prices.

One of the most dramatic was the multi-estimate $75,000 (£54,345) paid for the engraved belt buckle that Houdini is thought to have been wearing for his final performance when taken to the Detroit hospital before his death. It came with a letter of provenance signed by Hardeen Jr (Douglas Geoffrey Mackintosh) who was given it by Houdini’s brother Hardeen.

Posters and other printed material in the sale were led by another version of the rare Houdini upside down in the water torture cell poster which in this instance realised $90,000 (£65,215) against a $30,000-60,000 guide. Another notable result came for a rare early 2ft 2¼ x 21½ (67 x 55cm) poster printed in London, c.1848, for an appearance of Robert- Houdin at St James Theatre, King Street London, announcing his Soirées Fantastique. This soared over its $8000-12,000 guide to take $55,000 (£39,855).

The next sale from the Klosterman collection will take place at Potter & Potter in March 2022.

£1 = $1.38