Until his death in 2014, New York real estate mogul David M. Baldwin maintained a fine collection of magic curios and apparatus. Baldwin had a particular interest in ornate and elaborate “mystery clocks,” particularly those made by French magician and clockmaker, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. One such clock is the star lot in an upcoming Potter & Potter auction set to take place on Saturday, June 16th. The clock is expected to go for between 40 and 50 grand, but given how fierce bidding was at the company’s last magic auction, I expect it’ll fetch a higher price.
There’s a handful of other clocks that are expected to change hands for sums in the tens of thousands of dollars, including another example of Houdin’s work, and one that features a tiny autonomous magician that transposes objects to mark the hour.
Baldwin’s collection also included a finely-curated selection of magical apparatus, including a spirit bell and clock dial from the 1900’s, a Hofzinser 52 Card Rise Box that enabled any card in a deck to rise from the top of the box, a brass coin casket and the only known operational European Card bouquet device.
Other standouts include the traditional selection of Houdini memorabilia that always brings in a pretty penny. There’s a set of two bound volumes of Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine signed, “Best wishes from Harry Houdini,” a photograph of the man himself posing with Teddy Roosevelt’s grandchildren, and a theatre program from 1903 billing him as the “Handcuff King.”
The sale also includes selection of linen-backed broadsides, all of which are gorgeous.
If any of these lots catch your eye, you should check out the catalog on the Potter & Potter site. All the lots will be on display at the company’s gallery in Chicago from 10 am to 5 pm, June 13th to the 15th, before the auction goes live on June 16th.
It appears bidding was fierce at this year’s Potter & Potter Magic Memorabilia Auction if the prices fetched by two Houdini-related lots are anything to go by.
Note: All of the following figures include the action house’s 20% buyer’s premium.
A two-volume scrapbook on spiritualism kept by Harry Houdini himself was expected to sell for between $30,000 and $40,000, but bidding reached $66,000 before the hammer fell. The first book contained newspaper and magazine clippings on the subject of spiritualism, while the second collected news coverage of Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in the supernatural.
A second Houdini-related lot pulled in a figure almost as impressive. An archive of unseen material from Elliot Sanford chronicling his time with the legendary escape artist sold for $48,000. Sanford joined the Houdini troupe near the end of the Houdini’s life and was an eyewitness to both his death and its immediate aftermath. John Cox of WildAboutHarry fame has beaten us to the punch with an excellent article that explains Sanford’s significance and why his account makes this “possibly the most historically significant Houdini action lot ever.”
A handful of other Houdini artifacts brought in some hefty coinage as well. A poster from 1095 advertising a performance of “The Jail Breaker and Dexterous Handcuff King, Houdini” fetched $7,200, and a box of glass photo negatives labelled “Houdini in Atlantic City” sold for $5,280.
Houdini-related objects weren’t the only things at the auction to inspire bidding wars, several other lots sold for way over their estimated price. An Il Mago Delle Meraviglie poster from 1949 was expected to sell for $500 at most, but ended up costing one collector $1,680. A silk shirt worn by Dutch magician Tommy Wonder sold for than triple its maximum estimate of $2,000.
Other standout lots include:
If you’re looking to pick up some magic memorabilia of your own, Potter & Potter’s next magic auction is scheduled for June 16th and will apparently include automatons, mystery clocks, and “vintage apparatus.”
From June 24th, 2018 to January 21st, 2019, The Jewish Museum of Maryland will host Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini. The exhibit sounds like a must-see for fans of magic’s most iconic performer. To quote the museum’s description:
Inescapable, curated by local performer and magician David London, tells the story of how Ehrich Weiss became Harry Houdini and investigates the technologies, marketing prowess and entertainment trends that transformed him into a superstar. On one level, the exhibit is pure fun – incorporating magic, escapes, seances, films, rare artifacts and hands-on illusions. On a deeper level, the exhibit pulls back the curtain, revealing the story of the man behind the image.
The exhibit details the different stages of Houdini’s life, from his earliest days in Budapest to his untimely death and the mysteries surrounding it. The exhibit will also give visitors the opportunity to try out of some Houdini’s magic tricks, including the world’s smallest version of his vanishing elephant trick.
The museum is located at 15 Lloyd Street, Baltimore, MD, and is open from 10am to 5pm, Sunday through Thursday. Admission for non members is $10 for adults, $6 for students, $4 for children and $8 for seniors.
Potter & Potter’s magic auctions have covered some wide ground, including one-sheets from the golden age of magic and props and accessories once used by the late great Harry Blackstone, Sr. Their upcoming Spring Magic Auction promises to offer the same variety and quality of prestidigitation peculiarities, only this time, it’s all about Houdini.
The great conjuror and escape artist is the focal point for the upcoming auction, which takes place on April 28 at 10am Central. The highlight of this collection is easily a two-volume collection of spiritualism scrapbooks, written and compiled by Houdini and later bound into leather books by Joseph Dunninger. These volumes offer a glimpse into Houdini’s obsession with debunking spiritualists, with the second book almost entirely devoted to notes and newspaper clippings about author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own belief in the supernatural. If you’re interested in snagging this stunning set for your own library, get ready to pay a pretty penny: the listing starts at $30,000, and is expected to sell for at least $40,000, if not more.
Another highlight includes a trove of unpublished Houdini history, including a manuscript for a Houdini biography written by his assistant and secretary, Elliot Sanford. Sanford followed Houdini around for years, and kept over 100 pages of records and notes on the magician’s exploits, including details about Houdini’s home and never-before-revealed info on the final year of his life. This one will run you at least $10,000.
There are, of course, loads of other, non-Houdini-related items up for auction, including an assortment of issues of The Sphinx (including the first volume!) starting at $250, a variety of vintage comedy “Bang” guns each starting at $150, as well as an assortment of old-timey posters for Carter the Great and Chung Ling Soo.
Like previous Potter & Potter auctions, you can check out a full PDF catalog of the available items here, or you can visit the Potter and Potter gallery in Chicago on April 26 and 27 to view items from the collection in person. For more info on the auction schedule and how to bid online or via phone, check out their website here.
According to The Washington Times, Brad Meltzer’s recently released novel The Escape Artist is his “best book in years.” In it, a military artist and a mortician unravel a grand conspiracy that leads back to Harry Houdini. Now, there’s no harm in fictionalizing the lives of celebrities, especially in a world where Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter exists, but Meltzer apparently believes Houdini was, in fact, an actual spy, recruited into the Secret Service by his friend, John E. Wilkie.
Meltzer made the claim on Late Night with Seth Meyers, arguing that Houdini’s celebrity status and escape artist skills would allow him access to all kinds of intel-rich locations he could infiltrate for the Secret Service. The novelist’s claims have attracted the ire of John Cox, the man behind Houdini-themed blog, Wild About Harry, who, as you can imagine, takes his Houdini stuff very seriously.
Cox comes out swinging, pointing out that the last time Meltzer touched on Houdini’s life in his show Decoded, the writer made the “preposterous” and “offensive” claim that the famed escapologist was murdered by his wife for reasons of petty jealousy. He then goes on to elaborate on the origins of the “myth” that Houdini worked as a spy, claiming that the notion stems from a 2006 biography by the name of The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.
Cox admits that Houdini had a friendship of sorts with Superintendent William Melville of Scotland Yard and that the two did regularly exchange letters which may have mentioned happenings in Germany and Russia. Houdini, he argues, was a “habitual letter writer, a gossip and a bit of a G-man at heart, so it was in his character to do this.”
The only real evidence for Houdini as a quote-unquote “spy”, however, is a single vague mention of a letter, written by someone using the initials HH, that warranted being shown to the Ministry of Defense. As for any other evidence pointing to Houdini being a spy? There is none, according to Cox, and claims to the contrary are made more in the interest of attracting attention from movie studios than unearthing the truth of the man’s life.
Cox does stress his respect for the authors behind The Secret Life, but holds Meltzer in somewhat lower regard:
“Meltzer trades in the world of pseudo-history and ‘fake news,'” he writes, “a conspiracy theorist historian peddling half-truths and titillation. I’m sure the goal here, once again, is to sell a book to Hollywood, and I’m sure he will.”
You can read the full, highly-detailed takedown on Cox’s Wild About Harry blog here.
Being an Englishman, the only thing I know about Wisconsin is its status as a perpetual punchline. According to the terrible American comedies upon which I base my entire world view, Wisconsin is home only to the boring, the pedestrian and the chronically unloved. Wisconsin, I am told, is where romance goes to be euthanized. Yet, Harry Houdini, a strong contender for the most interesting man ever to walk to the earth, was known to proudly claim Appleton, Wisconsin as his honorary birthplace.
And Wisconsin loves him back, according an interesting piece on Culture Trip called “A Historical Guide to Houdini’s Wisconsin.” Appleton’s Houdini Plaza is an obvious tribute to the legendary escapologist. Unfortunately the beautiful, abstract sculpture “Metamorphosis” depicting his signature feat of the same name was removed from its base in the plaza by the city council in 2010 and has been left on its side outside of the Appleton Parks and recreation facility.
The Houdini Club of Wisconsin has been hosting events to promote Houdini’s life and work since 1938. More recent tributes include the Houdini 10k, an annual run that starts with “Houdini-esque” entertainment and ends with pints and song at the Houdini’s Escape Gastropub.
For a less commercial take on Houdini’s life and work, check out the AKA Houdini exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle, formally known as The Houdini Historic Center. The museum is known for its collection of relics from Houdini’s life, but has drawn criticism for revealing the secrets behind his signature tricks. If you’re a Houdini nut, I strongly suggest you start at Coney Island and then work your way back to Wisconsin. Maybe try some of the beer too.
Cynthia von Buhler is one of the most hyphenated multi-hyphenates I’ve ever encountered. She was already an artist, performer, playwright, and author before adding comic book creator and illustrator to her list with the release of Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini. The series is published by the Hard Case Crime imprint of Titan Comics, and is slated for four issues and a graphic novel finale. Minky Woodcock plays on von Buhler’s habit of producing theatrical experiences centered around prohibition-era murders, combining her deep dive into the styles and stories of the 1920s and 1930s with another of her life’s passions: magic.
The murder that started it all remains close to von Buhler’s heart. “Shortly after prohibition ended, my grandfather was shot on the streets of New York,” von Buhler tells GeniiOnline. “Nobody in my family knew why he was murdered, and my mother was born the day he died. We know he was involved in bootlegging, but that’s all. It was a strange mystery in my family, so I started investigating.” Her research into grandfather von Buhler’s murder resulted in a 2011 play called Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning, which ran for many years and still pops up occasionally in New York City.
After The Bloody Beginning she produced the Midnight Frolic, a play about Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas’ mysterious death in Paris in 1920. Elbow-deep in the search for the next prohibition-era murder to hang her hat on, von Buhler came across none other than Harry Houdini. “I’ve always been interested in magic, I actually do magic myself,” von Buhler says. “I can make doves appear and disappear. I was shocked by what I found out about Houdini because there are so many loopholes and mysteries about how he died.”
Von Buhler says she was already hard at work on a new play about Houdini’s death when a publisher from Hard Case Crime contacted her. “He said he was starting a comic book line and asked if I had any ideas for pulpy comics. I said, ‘well, I’ve been doing this series, and any one of these stories could work.’” The idea for a private investigator character came up when von Buhler realized she’d need to thread together all the deaths she wanted to include in her narrative, and Minky Woodcock was born. “I came up with the name Minky Woodcock many years ago,” Buhler admits. “I’ve been using it as my pseudonym. She’s kind of me, but not me. She’s a part of me.”
The comic opens on Woodcock & Son, a private investigator firm that Minky’s father started with hopes of roping her brother Bennie into the business. But Bennie has no interest in investigating, he’s more interested in becoming a showgirl. Let the gender politics begin. Minky explains that she wants to be a private detective, but her father will only permit her to be his secretary. “Later on, you’ll find that part of the reason Minky’s father doesn’t want her to be a private investigator is because she’s actually really good at it,” von Buhler teases. “He doesn’t want her to find out some things he has been hiding.”
While the challenge to traditional gender roles was an intentional theme in the story, von Buhler says that the comic’s release coinciding with the #MeToo movement was a happy accident. I asked von Buhler about the “mature readers” rating on the comic, and about including scenes that are sexually explicit and that depict sexual assault. “I’ve been working this for a few years, so before the whole #MeToo thing started,” she says. “We’ve come so far but we have so far to go. I like showing that we have made progress, but things are still bad. The times and how Minky is treated as a woman are definitely a big part of the story. I’ve had to deal with a lot of sexism in my life. I’ve buried a lot of it, but it’s there. It’s in our minds, it comes out in our art.”
As much as elements of early 20th century sexism that feature into the comic are based on fact, von Buhler says most of the comic’s narrative is actually the truth. “That’s what intrigues me,” she says, “the facts are so bizarre you wouldn’t imagine they could be real. On my website I have a section called ‘Evidence’ where you can actually look at the documents I dug up as proof.” Von Buhler discovered that female private investigators working undercover during prohibition was actually something of a trend: “It became popular that women could manipulate situations and they wouldn’t be suspected so they made better spies.”
In the Minky Woodcock story, we catch up with Houdini when he was rallying hard against the spiritualist movement. “A lot of people didn’t know that Houdini was trying to debunk spiritualism,” von Buhler says. It’s one of the elements that caught von Buhler’s eye when she dove into the historical archive of work written both by Houdini and about Houdini. Von Buhler is quick to recommend Wild About Houdini as a source for anyone interested to learn more about Houdini’s life, and says that her favorite book in all her research on the project was The Man Who Killed Houdini, by Don Bell. “He actually went up to Canada to interview people about Houdini’s death,” says von Buhler. “The fact that the man who punched him was a spiritualist was groundbreaking, in my opinion.”
Of course, Houdini’s death fits perfectly into von Buhler’s already well-tested obsession with mysterious murders of the age. “If you ask most people how Houdini died, they’ll say, ‘oh, he died during his trick,’ because there’s a movie where he died during a trick. Or they’ll say ‘oh, he was punched,” but they don’t really know much about it. I’m really delving into what that punch meant, and what else was going on around him. A lot of people didn’t like him. He was a very opinionated person and he had a lot of enemies. People wanted him dead.”
Houdini’s spiritualist adventures also captured von Buhler’s imagination because of the contextual difference between spiritualism and magic. “It’s funny that Houdini was debunking spiritualism, because what he was doing was sort of the same thing. But he was calling it entertainment, and they were preying on people who had lost loved ones. What’s interesting about this is that Houdini really wanted to believe. He loved his mother so much that when she died, he really wanted to reach her. He wanted someone to prove him wrong.”
Most of von Buhler’s theatrical productions qualify more as immersive experiences than as straight plays. Breaking down the traditional barriers of performance and of art are crucial to her ethos, and venturing into comic book creation has been a project inspired by that approach. “I was trained as a painter, that you should be able to show something in a single image without words. I always thought comics were cheating because you’re adding words and panels,” she confessed. “I hadn’t thought about it as a storyboard, I hadn’t realized it was a whole other way of storytelling that I hadn’t explored yet. I find that comics bring a lot of people to reading who wouldn’t normally pick up books, because they like the pictures and that helps them.”
That’s just one of the ways that von Buhler hopes MInky Woodcock will inspire readers to do more and explore on their own. Whether it’s the comic book form encouraging the passion of a new reader or Minky’s adventures with Houdini inspiring people to learn more about good ol’ Harry, von Buhler considers that kind of personal connection with a piece of art to be the ultimate goal. “I find that people relate better to art when they actually interact with it. If you’re looking at a painting on the wall you may get something out of it, but if that painting starts talking to you or you have to interact with it, to touch it or look at it from a different angle, then it becomes partially yours. That’s what I try to do with my art. I want people to go to the website and read through the evidence, asking, ‘did that actually happen? This is amazing, but is this real?’ I want people to do that with Minky too.”
Harry Houdini’s legacy has been committed to film, literature, and painting, but now the master magician is getting an audio adaptation. Redfield Arts Audio, a production studio focused on audio storytelling, is making an “audio-novella” titled The Adventures of Harry and Bess Houdini.
The details are a little scarce, but all we know for now is that Mark Redfield, the actor/writer/artist/filmmaker who leads the studio, voices Harry and Mackenzie Menter voices his wife, Bess. The audio company’s Twitter account has promised more cast information and a synopsis in late February. It’s currently scheduled for tentative release in mid-May on CD and digitally via Audible.
Back in August 2017, we reported that a bejeweled Russian heirloom once gifted to Harry Houdini had auctioned for $72,000 in a sale held by Potter & Potter. What we didn’t know was who ended up with the rare jewelry, as the buyer wished to remain anonymous at the time. But now that changes: in an upcoming episode of Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby on Fox Business, the current owner has revealed himself to be none other than David Copperfield.
Copperfield, who has been on a tear lately buying up priceless Houdini artifacts (like the bookcase from his New York apartment), will reveal to Fox Business on an upcoming episode that he was the new owner of this necklace. You can watch the trailer below:
A little background on this mysterious brooch: the story goes that Houdini was gifted a medal adorned with diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds by Russian royalty during his voyage performing in the country, but the source itself is a bit of a mystery. Bess Houdini, Harry’s wife who turned the medal into a necklace, insisted that it was a gift from Czar Nicholas II himself, but available records indicate that he never met the Czar, and that instead the pin was likely a gift from Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich.
Provenance aside, we do know that it came into possession by the Houdini’s in the early 20th century. It was then gifted to Gerrie Larsen, a TV performer known as The Magic Lady, who then gave it to her son Milt’s wife Arlene. Arlene put it up for auction, and now it’s in the possession of Copperfield, the wealthiest magician in the industry and known collector of historical magic artifacts.
If you want to learn more about the story behind this necklace, and how Copperfield came to own it, the full episode of Strange Inheritance should have the rest of the juicy details, which airs Monday, January 22 at 9:30pm Eastern on Fox Business.
For most, the address 278 West 113 Street in New York City doesn’t mean much. But for magicians and fans of the craft, that address is synonymous with perhaps the most illustrious name in magic history: Harry Houdini. And as of December 30, it would appear that the famed townhouse has a new owner.
The Manhattan property currently sits at over 6000 square-feet, originally purchased by Houdini at $25,000 in 1904, according to Mansion Global. It has since been converted and renovated into a three-family home across four stories.
The home was listed on the market back in June 2017 for $4.6 million, and at the time Houdini enthusiast and owner of the Wild About Harry blog John Cox took a trip to check out the interior:
The foyer is beautiful and dramatic. Beverley pointed out that the wood work is all original. The unique lattice around the stairs had been in “bad shape” and were restored. There’s a large mirror flanked by coat hooks. The mirror glass has been replaced, but the wood frame and hooks are still original. Yes, this is where Houdini hung his hat after a hard day of escaping straitjackets.
The last asking price of the house was at $3.6 million, or around $1 million less than the original asking price. Details of final sale price or the identity of the new owner are currently undisclosed. Here’s hoping a magician was able to get their hands on it. Perhaps David Copperfield?