News | February 7, 2023

Ricky Jay’s Rare Books, Magicana, and Historical Artifacts Under the Hammer

Potter & Potter

New Art of Hocus Pocus Revived

A lauded actor, celebrated sleight-of-hand magician, and noted author, Ricky Jay (1946-2018) was also a passionate historian. During his life, he curated his own 10,000 piece collection of magic, circus, and show business ephemera, impressive and rare enough to be tapped for an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jay’s collection is being auctioned off in four parts; the first installment took place in New York in October, 2021 over the course of two days and realized $3.8 million. Potter & Potter Auctions will host the second, third, and fourth installments of the Ricky Jay Collection sale, a 370 lot sale to be held on February 25 starting at 10am CST.

This event will be held live at Potter & Potter's gallery, located at 5001 W. Belmont Avenue in Chicago, as well as live streamed at Phone and absentee bids are welcome. All lots will be available for in-person previews on February 20th-24th and Potter & Potter will be hosting a preview reception for this sale the evening of February 23rd. Printed catalogs are available at $55 beginning January 25th. Contact Potter & Potter Auctions directly for more information.

The Ricky Jay Collection features exceptional antique posters promoting legacy 19th and 20th century acts; several of these take top lot slots in this exciting sale:

* Lot #185, Herrmann. Decapitation, is estimated at $20,000-40,000. This hand-painted poster maquette from c. 1878 was in printed in Chicago by The Jeffrey Printing Co. It measures 27-¾ x 20" and depicts French magician Alexander Herrmann (1844 – 1896) holding a sharp tool and standing beside a horrified man. The man’s eyes bulge as the magician draws the steel across the victim’s neck, and blood visibly flows. This is the first Herrmann poster maquette Potter's experts have handled, and one of a handful of maquettes extant for any poster produced during magic’s “golden age.”     
* Lot #81, Is Conan Doyle Right?, is estimated at $6,000-12,000. This framed lithograph for the film subtitled Can the dead talk to the living? was printed in Cleveland by  J. Morgan Litho. in 1923. It is illustrated with a giant hand reaching down between a medium and a sitter, a message on a slate before them, and a crystal ball. This example measures 43 x 29” and is only one of two examples known by Potter's experts.
* Lot #287, Rameses In His Egyptian Temple Of Mysteries, is estimated at $3,000-6,000. This 30 x 20-1/8” linen backed example was published by S.C. Allen in London around 1910. It promotes Ramses (born Abraham Marchinski, 1876-1930) a British magician who was the first illusionist to appear at London’s Palladium. The poster spotlights his signature levitation, depicted here as the flight of an assistant with wings, and another woman springing from a burning brazier.

This sale also features antiquarian to modern books from Mr. Jay's exquisitely curated personal library:

* Lot #2, Marimon R.G. Adams' The Rich Uncle From Fiji, is estimated at $5,000-8,000. It was illustrated by Alek Sass and published in Melbourne by The Exchange Press in 1911. This treatise on cons and crooked gambling includes one of only a few accounts of the Purse Swindle, as well as explanations on the methods of monte mobs and other hustlers. This work was relatively unknown until rediscovered in 1975 and has since become one of the most sought-after titles in the literature of crooked gambling and cons.    
* Lot #187, New Art Of Hocus Pocus Revived, is estimated at $3,000-5,000. It was printed in London by T.D. Dewick 46, Barbican for T. and Hughes, 35, Ludgate-Street in 1808. It features marbled boards over a pebbled black leather spine titled in gilt, with marbled endsheets. Its hand-colored frontispiece depicts the “droll trick of a Cambridge scholar” as also seen in editions of Breslaw’s Last Legacy.  
* Lot #80, The Complete Conjuror; Or, Art Of Legerdemain, is estimated at $1,500-2,500. It was published in London by Thomas Tegg in 1812. It features a hand-colored pictorial frontispiece of a conjurer on stage, firing a pistol over his head. This example is one of only a handful of this publication extant.
* Lot #203, Ricky Jay's The Magic Magic Book, is estimated at $2,000-4,000. It was published in New York in 1994 by the Whitney Museum. This two volume set includes one book of text and one blow book, where the page images change as they are flipped. The blow book was illustrated by Vija Celmins, Jane Hammond, Glenn Ligon, Justen Ladda, Philip Taaffe, and William Wegman. This set was probably an artists’ proof and is thought to be unique in its binding style and cloth color.    

Archives of magic and sideshow related materials are also well represented in The Ricky Jay Collection:

* Lot #68, a Folio Of Etchings, Drawings, And Engravings Of Remarkable Characters And Freaks, is estimated at $8,000-12,000. This scrapbook of 24 leaves bound in paper-covered boards features images of the “freaks” of the 18th and 19th century. Most prominent is a 10- ½ x 7" engraved and inscribed self portrait of Matthew Buchinger, dated 1709. Buchinger (German, 1674-1740) was a 2' 5" tall artist, magician, and performer born without hands or feet.
* Lot #161, a collection of 50 diaries kept by Karl Germain, (born Charles Mattmuller, 1878 - 1959) is estimated at $10,000-20,000. "Germain the Wizard" kept extensive records of his personal and professional life. These diaries chronicle his ideas, thoughts, tour dates, finances, and records of performances from c. 1890-1940.  
* Lot #232, three photo albums picturing dwarfs and midgets, is estimated at $1,500-3,000. This trio from the second half of the 19th century contains 110+ sepia tone carte de visites of popular little people of the era. These include images of Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia Warren, scenes from their wedding, images with their child, and their visits with fellow dwarf and entertainer Commodore Nutt.

The Ricky Jay Collection also includes outstanding, antique entertainment industry themed images, illustrations, and correspondence:

* Lot #67, The Effigies of Mr. Matthew Buchinger, is estimated at $6,000-8,000. This self-portrait engraving of the famed personality was made in London and dated April 29th, 1724. It measures 12-¼ x 8”. Buchinger is pictured seated on a tasseled cushion, surrounded by fancy scrollwork. His wig is made up of the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Below, a text block lists his personal talents and accomplishments.
* Lot #178, Robert Heller and The Harlequin, is estimated at $1,500-2,500. This c. 1870 sepia tone albumen photo of the performer (born William Henry Palmer, 1826 – 1878) shows him with a harlequin automaton which looks to be escaping from a chest atop a table. The plainly mounted image measures 5 x 4-¼”.
* Lot #196, an inter-ocean typed letter postcard from Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz, 1874 – 1926), is estimated at $2,000-4,000. This ink signed note is dated July 8, 1920, written on a R.M.S. Imperator folding letter card, and mailed to Cullen Bryant of Philadelphia. It reads, in part, “Here we are in mid-ocean! … Have had the most successful six months career on stage, both financial as well as artistical! It will be some time before things are normal abroad.”

The Ricky Jay Collection sale comes full circle with premier offerings of magic and gambling related antiques:  

* Lot #318, “Soapy” Smith's roulette table and wheel, is estimated at $10,000-20,000. This handsome, working, full-size roulette layout, table, and wheel  was made by George Mason & Co. around 1890. It measures 95-½ x 40 x 31” with an outer wheel diameter of 31-1/2". It was used by notorious con man “Soapy” Smith (born Jefferson R. Smith, 1860-1898).
* Lot #247, Max Malini's briefcase, is estimated at $4,000-8,000. This well-worn black leather case measures 16 x 12 x 2” and was owned by the sleight-of-hand magician (born Max Katz Breit, 1873 - 1942). Its metal clasps are stamped TOKYO. The case retains an original luggage label from the Holland East Asia Line. This is one of just a few personal relics from Malini’s life to come to market in the last 100 years.

According to Gabe Fajuri, President at Potter & Potter Auctions, "These auctions promise to be an intersection of the rare, the bizarre, and the beautiful. Ricky Jay had an eye for the unusual, coupled with the brain of a gifted scholar and the talents of a polymath. Nothing makes this diversity of interests more clear than a guided trip through his collection. And now, again, the legions of fans Ricky created through his writing, his scholarly lectures, performances and his celebration of the world's curious characters will have an opportunity to own a piece of his fabled wunderkammer. Everyone on our staff, but perhaps no one more than me, is excited to bring his collection to auction, and we have been preparing a special catalog and exhibition to coincide with the sales."