Auctions | September 8, 2021

Sotheby's to Offer Collection of Renowned Magician & Entertainer Ricky Jay

Credit: Myles Aronowitz & Lisa Levart

Magician, entertainer, and collector Ricky Jay.

New York – Prepare to be amazed by the most important collection of objects spanning the history of magic illusionism, popular entertainments, and other curiosities to ever appear at auction: Sotheby’s today announces that property from the collection of Ricky Jay – one of the world’s greatest sleight of hand artists who has captivated audiences worldwide with his one-man shows and his film and television appearances, including David Mamet’s House of Games, HBO’s renowned series Deadwood, the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and many more – will be presented in a dedicated auction in New York on 27 & 28 October.
One of the premier collectors of material related to the history of magic, circus arts, gambling, con artistry, unusual  entertainments, and the art of deception, the highly-anticipated auction of Jay’s renowned collection of books, pamphlets, posters, broadsides, handbills, manuscripts, prints, and more dating from the sixteenth century to present times represents the most important collection of magic collectibles and ephemera to ever appear at auction. The Ricky Jay Collection will offer more than one thousand treasures, in nearly 700 lots, with estimates starting from a few hundred dollars. Amassed across more than half a century throughout Jay’s travels, these personally curated collections provide a rare and intimate look at the many fascinations that defined his passion for collecting, including automata, circus arts, unusual entertainment, menageries, early museums, gambling, canting language, low life and more.
Largely known for its holdings of material on magic and deception, the expansive collection covers nearly the entire spectrum of public attractions and remarkable characters. Although portions of the Collection have been exhibited at museums, and libraries across the country, many of the works on offer will be shown publicly for the very first time this fall, before making their world auction debut.
Highlights from The Ricky Jay Collection will be on view at Sotheby’s New Bond Street galleries in London from 24 – 28 September, followed by a public pre-sale exhibition at Sotheby’s New York galleries from 21 – 26 October ahead of the live auction on 27 & 28 October.
Selby Kiffer, International Senior Specialist in Sotheby’s Books & Manuscripts Department, said: “The Ricky Jay Collection has a legendary reputation—his significant holdings of works by Matthias Buchinger even formed the foundation for a pioneering exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and it is a tremendous honor to present such a large selection of Jay’s highly curated and specialized collection to auction. Rarely do collections reflect their owner’s personality as much as Jay’s, whose boundless curiosity for all things related to the history of magic and illusionism also led him to more obscure subjects that capture all manner of the otherworldly—from con artists to spiritualism. As a chronicler of the unusual, the objects in the Ricky Jay Collection highlight the many ways in which popular culture and entertainment, among other subjects, have delighted, shocked, and inspired us for centuries”
Ricky Jay: World Renowned Sleight of Hand Artist

"I take unabated pleasure in the efforts of showmen to educate and entertain their audiences. I love the interaction and competition of rival promoters. I love the efforts of performers to develop improbable and original creations. I love deception. I love the ways in which 'the mind is led on step by step to ingeniously defeat its own logic' ... I really do love this stuff." Ricky Jay
Inspired by his grandfather – an amateur yet highly-accomplished magician in his own right – Jay was introduced to the world of magic and was exposed to the best magicians from an early age. Jay first performed for the Society of American Magicians at age four, and first appeared on television at age seven – likely the youngest magician to ever perform a full magic act on TV. The first magician to perform at comedy clubs as well as open for rock & roll bands, Jay performed throughout the 1960s and 1970s as the opening act or the headliner with performers such as Ike and Tina Turner, The Chambers Brothers, Al Jarreau, Herbie Hancock and Emmylou Harris. Noted by writer Mark Singer in a 1993 profile of Jay in The New Yorker as “perhaps the most gifted sleight of hand artist alive” – Jay was renowned for his close-up card tricks, distance card throwing, feats of memory, and remarkable rhetorical flourishes throughout his presentations.
Books, Lectures and Shows
Jay wrote many books, including Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women; Celebrations of Curious Characters; Matthias Buchinger: "The Greatest German Living”, Extraordinary Exhibitions; and The Magic Magic Book, which was produced for the Whitney Museum of American Art. He also contributed to important literature and material on the history of magic, including serving as a contributing author to the Taschen publication Magic 1400s -1950s – which features reproductions of many pieces from his collection, as well as defining the terms of his profession for the Encyclopedia Britannica and The Cambridge Guide to American Theater. From 1994 to 2000, Jay produced a fine press quarterly entitled Jay's Journal of Anomalies, which drew on his extensive knowledge of, and library of material on, curious forms of entertainment and deception from the sixteenth through early twentieth centuries. The collected edition was named one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times.
Jay curated several exhibitions featuring items from his collection, including Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collection of Ricky Jay (the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Hammer Museum); Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger's Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay (the Metropolitan Museum of Art); Rotten Luck: the Decaying Dice of Ricky Jay (the Museum of Jurassic Technology); and Twixt Two Worlds, or The Uninvited Guest: Selections from the Collection of Ricky Jay (Christine Burgin Gallery, New York).
Performances, Film and Television
With a career as a master sleight of hand artist, conjurer, and entertainer that spanned more than five decades, Jay built a reputation as an unparalleled master craftsman of his trade. His one-man shows directed by David Mamet – Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants, Ricky Jay: On the Stem, and Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery – were critically acclaimed and played to sold-out houses worldwide, breaking box office records and garnering numerous awards and honors. Jay also frequently acted in feature films including House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and Boogie Nights; hosted television programs, and appeared on shows including Deadwood, Flash Forward, and Sneaky Pete. He also consulted on film productions, and provided his expertise on Forrest Gump, The Illusionist, The Prestige, and The Escape Artist, among others. The special Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay was broadcast as part of the PBS American Masters series, making him the only magician to ever receive this distinction.
He presented lecture-demonstrations on various subjects, including conjuring literature, sense perception, and unusual entertainments. Far too numerous to list all, these lectures included Hocus Pocus in Perfection: Four Hundred Years of Conjuring and Conjuring Literature, the Harold Smith Memorial Lecture at Brown University; The Origins of the Confidence Game for the conference of Police Against Confidence Crime; and Fast and Loose: The Techniques and Literature of Cheating at the William Andrew Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.
“The swindler who never swindled, the conman who never conned, the cheat who never cheated, and mostly, the eccentric collector of all that is eccentric. Ricky was a clear-eyed and precise acquisitor, whose intellect guided him to each object: Every book, broadside, or armless wonder he gathered either reflected or expanded Ricky's peculiar knowledge.” – Steve Martin
One of the premier collectors of material related to the history of magic, circus arts, gambling, con artistry, unusual entertainments, and all forms of deception, Jay approached his collecting with the rigor and attention to detail of a scholar. Largely known for its holdings of material on magic and deception, The Ricky Jay Collection is more expansive than imagined, and covers nearly the entire range of public attractions and remarkable characters, ranging in size from postage stamps to billboards. Throughout a half-century of his professional travels, Jay built his collection while using spare moments of free time in his touring schedule to search print and book shops around the world and visit older magicians and collectors. Throughout decades of collecting, Jay utilized his personal connections, and consequently acquired exceptional pieces with storied pedigrees, such as a Thurston and Kellar poster formerly in the collection of Harry Houdini – another notable magician collector – which subsequently traveled to the collection of celebrated lighting designer Jules Fisher before finally coming to Jay’s private collection (estimate $8/12,000).
Mr. Jay was partial to P.T. Barnum’s stated mission “to elucidate and entertain” – which was possibly the operating tenet of his storied collection. His passion for collecting, scholarship, camaraderie, dedication and competition led Jay to begin acquiring old books to look for material.  He continued to collect books, manuscripts, pamphlets, broadsides, posters and more.

One of the standout highlights from the Ricky Jay Collection is a unique compilation of more than 460 prints of “Remarkable Characters” – giants, little people, performers, criminals, conmen, murderers, and others both famous and infamous, including some famous political and social figures (estimate $100/150,000). Brought together by William Esdaile (1758-1837), the most important print collector of his day, the prints are meticulously bound in two volumes and extensively annotated by the collector. Comprised of prints spanning from the mid-seventeenth century to the early nineteenth, these albums are particularly important for preserving popular and ephemeral images of the type that seldom survive the notoriety of their subject.
The collection features an exceptional range of early books on magic and conjuring, including all the sixteenth and seventeenth century editions of the seminal English magic book, Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft – the 1584 first edition of Scot's explosive treatise on witchcraft, in which he disputes the existence of witches (pictured right, estimate $50/70,000). Scot explains the belief in witches as occurring from a particular social encounter: when old women begged for food or other assistance and were turned away empty handed, the women would curse their neighbors. Then, when something bad occurred, the old women would be accused of witchcraft. In addition to his knowledge of country law courts and village lore, the work is a remarkable achievement of erudition, for which Scot consulted numerous works in Latin and English to substantiate his view that belief in witchcraft and magic has no rational or religious basis. He attributes manifestations of witchcraft to imposture and trickery, and exposes conjuring tricks, magical illusions and various cozening devices. The auction also features two of three rare early imprints of Thomas Ady’s A Candle in the Dark (estimate $15/25,000); seventeenth century editions of the much desired Hocus Pocus Junior ($8/12,000); and the earliest magic books in a number of languages, as well as many later books, including scarce and unique imprints.

Among Jay’s myriad fascinations, German magician Matthias Buchinger was Mr. Jay’s favorite subject. He assembled what is likely the most important collection on the artist. Buchinger’s life and accomplishments are chronicled in Jay’s book Matthias Buchinger: “The Greatest German Living” which accompanied the celebrated 2016 exhibition “Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Buchinger performed magic, music, bowling techniques, and remarkably, produced extraordinary micrographic calligraphy and more throughout his career, despite being just twenty-nine inches tall and having no hands or legs. Jay’s extensive collection is led by a multitude of examples of his microcalligraphy, including Buchinger’s own family tree (estimate $20/30,000) and a Drawing of Queen Anne (estimate $25/35,000); the collection is also rich in engraved portraits of Buchinger by other artists.
Mr. Jay preferred more obscure performers to those in the mainstream. However, he assembled an impressive group of items from and about magic’s greatest celebrity – Harry Houdini. The group includes full color-lithographs of the master escape artist in performance, led by a poster of Harry Houdini Upside Down in The Water Torture Cell (estimate $40/60,000). Considered one of the most significant posters of Houdini, this beautiful and very rare poster effectively conveys Houdini's expression of concern. "Magicians' posters are usually guilty of exaggeration. But here Houdini used a stark image to emphasize the simple drama of his famous Water Torture Cell. Instead of picturing the tank of water, the locks and hasps, Houdini's face told the entire story. Each performance was a life-or-death melodrama" (Magic). Further highlighting the group is Houdini in Russia (estimate $30/40,000), which commemorates – rather than promotes – a performance by Houdini. The celebrated escape from a Siberian Transport Cell, which has been described as a "cell on wheels," took place at Moscow's Butyrka prison during Houdini's 1903 travels through Russia. The poster text summarizes the event: "Chief of the Secret Russian Police Lebedoeff had Harry Houdini stripped stark naked and searched then locked up in the Siberian Transport Cell or Carette, May 10/1903 in Moscow and in 28 minutes Houdini had made his escape to the unspeakable astonishment of the Russian Police." There is still no consensus on how the escape was accomplished. The backward N in Houdini in the title gives the poster an appropriately Cyrillic aspect. The earliest Houdini poster in Jay’s collection dates from 1895 and promotes his first great effect, “Metamorphosis,” which he performed with his wife, Beatrice (estimate $25/35,000). The collection also has many items from Houdini’s own collection, especially those relating to his long campaign to expose spiritualism. These include Houdini’s own set of Magic Lantern Slides that he used when lecturing on spiritualism (estimate $30/50,000) and his acerbically annotated copy of Hereward Carrington’s The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism (estimate $4/6,000).

Beyond Houdini, The Ricky Jay collection features pieces advertising the shows of nearly every important magician from the early eighteenth century through to the present day. Including the only known playbills for the shows of the legendary Isaac Fawkes and his son, it also features examples promoting the acts and appearances of Johannes Grigg, Philip Breslaw, Lane, and many more; stone lithographs of Robert-Houdin, Alexander Herrmann, T. Nelson Downs (“The King of Koins”), Harry Kellar, Hardeen (Houdini’s brother), William Robinson (who performed as Chung Ling Soo), Alois Kassner, John Nevil Maskelyne, The Great Nicola, Charles Morritt, Howard Thurston, and LeRoy, Talma & Bosco, among others; and one of just two known copies of the classic poster of Max Malini “commanded to appear” before various heads of state, including former president Teddy Roosevelt (estimate $15/20,000). Max Malini was a particular favorite of Ricky Jay, who devoted an entire chapter of Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women to "the last of the mountebanks.”