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Collectibles: It’s Tricky

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

The spectacular growth of the magic memorabilia market is no illusion; collector Mike Caveney can attest to that. “When I started, it was a much smaller group,” says the 56-year-old from Pasadena, Calif., who began collecting magic-related posters, photographs, and books in the 1970s. “We would meet in magic shops, and I could buy a poster for $75. But now, it’s become a huge business.” Demand has prompted Manhattan’s Swann Auction Galleries to present an annual magic memorabilia sale for the past nine years; the 2006 edition, slated for October 26, will feature items belonging to French collector Christian Fechner.

A lithograph touting Harry Houdini’s 1902 escape from an Amsterdam prison will be among the highlights of this year’s auction. The artwork could fetch more than $20,000. Swann also will auction off 22 lots relating to the performer known as Chung Ling Soo, a master of magic who supposedly was from China but was actually Brooklyn-born William Ellsworth Robinson. A bullet-catching trick went awry during a London show in 1918, and the inquest into his death exposed Robinson’s dual identity.

Swann’s auction concentrates on printed material, but magic memorabilia is not limited to two-dimensional objects. In addition to more typical items—he owns a handsome color poster that depicts Houdini escaping from a milk can—Minneapolis collector Tad Ware also seeks apparatus (a magicians’ term for the props they employ during performances) for large illusions such as sawing a woman in half and restores them. “I like to make them look and function as they did originally,” he says, explaining that such projects involve study and sweat—searching archival documents for clues about an item’s design, and physical tasks such as scraping away layers of paint. “Not too many people do what I do, because the items are hard to store.”

Whether they are posters, photographs, books, or apparatus, items connected to Houdini command the most attention. “Houdini is the most popular. His material always fetches nice prices,” says Gary Garland, who handles magic items for Swann and has been with the house for 22 years. Houdini is so dominant that he influences the timing of the Swann auction, which always occurs near the anniversary of his death on Halloween 1926.

However, seasoned collectors recognize that there is more to magic than Houdini. At last year’s Swann auction, an 1890 poster of Alexander Herrmann, a German-born 19th-century magician who gained fame in America, sold for $24,000, the highest price paid for any single item in that sale. Also coveted are advertisements depicting Ionia, aka Elise Williams, an auburn-haired performer from the early 20th century. “Ionia is virtually impossible to get,” Garland says. “Her career was short-lived, and few of her posters survive. She was a well-regarded magician, and she was a very handsome young woman. She was always a beauty on her posters.”

The Swann auction is a forum for finding such rarities, but it is also a social gathering for collectors. “I can’t think of another group like that, that is a big group of friends,” says Caveney, who adds it is easy for anyone to gain admittance to the circle. “Just show up and be interested.”

Ware will not show up at the Swann auction because, he says, his interest in magic memorabilia is too strong for his own good. “My competitive juices come to the fore, and I do silly things,” he says, noting that he cannot resist the temptation to gorge himself like a boy in a candy store. “I have an agent bid on my behalf so that the blood doesn’t rush to my head. I need a governor on the thing.”

Swann Auction Galleries
212.254.4710
www.swanngalleries.com

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