Over the last few years it seems like there has been an increased interest in collecting the bizarre and odd, particularly the oddities of yesterday. As collecting the artifacts of the carnival midways, sideshows and traveling medicine shows gain popularity, so does the popularity of these entertainments’ (only slightly) more refined cousin, magic. Although magic and illusion have been popular entertainments for centuries, the hey day of stage magic was arguably around the turn of the last century. This period has left us a legacy of beautiful advertising material, souvenirs and actual stage props. The problem is that magic, by its very nature, is secretive which compounds the normal problems that come with antique verification. Many items sold as magic props, such as puzzle boxes and two headed coins, are actually novelties or gambling items. If you are not a magician (and sometimes even if you are), it can be very difficult to spot a legitimate prop and even harder to tell something relatively old. However, props are only one of the types of magic related antiques you may find.
One of the most popular areas of magic collecting is advertising, which basically means posters although some collectors concentrate on promotional photographs or print advertising. Just like everyone else, yesterday’s magicians needed to advertise their shows to potential audience and regularly used posters of various sizes. Collecting magic advertising is really not any different than collecting other genres of vintage posters. The biggest problem with magic posters is that there are many, many reproductions. You can be reasonably sure that anything on tin or canvas is most probably a modern reproduction. It can be difficult to tell an original from a newer copy but there can be a few obvious clues. The most famous magicians (Houdini, Thurston, Blackstone, Kellar, Hermann and the like) are going to be the most reproduced and, therefore, the easiest to misidentify. When you run across a performer you do not recognize, try to determine the approximate age of the poster so you can gauge if the piece appears to be old enough to be an original. This can be difficult because so many posters show performers in costume, not the fashion of the day. However, a quick Internet search on your smartphone, though, will probably give you an idea of the years they were performing.
SOUVENIRS, BOOKS AND MORE
Vintage posters can be expensive because they were created to be disposable objects and so few survive from older performers such as Thurston or Houdini. Luckily, they are not the only artifacts left from the golden age of magicians. Just like today, yesterday’s fans wanted keepsakes from their favorite performers. Many magicians offered a range of souvenirs, including good luck coins and cards, programs and books.
Books are probably the easiest items to find. Some magicians sold memoirs of their exotic (and sometimes fictitious) travels while others sold books of simple to do magic tricks. Walter Gibson, the prolific author behind the vast majority of The Shadow’s printed adventures, was an avid magician who co-wrote and ghostwrote books for famous performers including Harry Houdini. Harry Blackstone, who inspired a radio show that featured him as The Magic Detective, even appeared in comic books!
Some magicians had keepsakes for sale or to giveaway during their performances. Howard Thurston, one of the most successful magicians in history, was famous for his ability to throw playing cards to audience members– even those sitting in the balcony! His double thick souvenir cards featured his picture and wished the recipient good luck. Several versions are available, the most common being one with Jane Thurston, his adopted daughter and assistant, on one side and the magician himself on the other. Other magicians used similar giveaways, commonly called “throw out cards.” Good luck tokens were also common giveaways. These are often confused with palming coins, the special coins some magicians used to increase visibility of coins while on stage. Generally the magic tokens have a promotional image and, again, wish the holder good luck. Many people turned these tokens into charms, watch fobs or keychains by punching a hold through them which will adversely affect the value (unless you need a charm, watch fob or keychain). Magicians’ tokens are easy to identify because they feature the name, image and/or logo of the performer. They are often made of less expensive metals (such as the popular but vague “German silver”) although there are some silver tokens.
There were other souvenir and giveaway items. Some magicians, for example, had small mirrors made featuring their image on the reverse. There are several companies today making small metal pill boxes, cigarette cases and miniature lunch boxes featuring images from vintage magic posters. These are commonly mistaken as souvenir items from the past, especially if they have been abused a bit and gained an aged appearance.
By far the most interesting, expensive and (financially) dangerous area of magic collecting is actual props. There are several obstacles for the beginning collector to overcome. First of all, these are the actual devices that create a magician’s illusions and effects. Props literally form the secrets of magic so they are difficult for non-magicians to identify. For example, there are many altered coins (often referred to as gimmicked or gaffed coins) that are used in magic. It is common for double-headed (or tailed) coins to be sold as a magic item. Honestly, a two headed coin has little value to a magician. A coin with two heads, but each from a different type of coin, may be a magician’s gaffe but a two headed coin is a novelty. Puzzle boxes are another item commonly sold as a magic prop that are really not associated with stage magic. Even if you can identify an item as a real magic prop, it can be difficult to authenticate age. The Chinese Linking Rings sold today are basically exactly the same as those used by hard working vaudeville magicians. Plastics are an easy to spot indication that a prop is not that old, but materials are not always a reliable indicator of age. Many magic props today, such as the small coin containers used in many close up effects or the cups used in the world famous “cups and balls,” are crafted from brass as they were 100 years ago! A final issue is the wild variance in prop quality. Some props are finely crafted works of art while other, equally legitimate, props are essentially homemade pieces that are meant to look great on stage but are obviously painted plywood when up close! A great example of this the wand. While some magicians used turned wands made of teak or other fine materials, at least one famous American magician made his own wand by fixing used brass bullet shells to the ends of a simple black dowel! Basically, the quick and easy rule for non-magicians collecting antique magic props is: Don’t do it! If you are interested in collecting props then you need to take the time to learn magic.
Despite their reputation for secrecy, you will find that there are magicians’ groups who will happily help you to determine if you have purchased a legitimate piece of magic history. The fact is that many magicians are attracted to the history and traditions of magic. In many ways magic is like a craft or even a martial art that has been handed down from one generation to the next. Today’s magicians love the stories and artifacts of yesterday’s performers. If you have something you would like checked out by a magic expert you should try to contact a local magic group. If you would like to actually take up magic, many of the same groups will be able to help as well. Some of the biggest include:
International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM), probably the largest magic society in the world. Organized into local chapters called rings, they are headquartered in St. Louis, MO but have rings in at least 30 countries. You can visit their website at www.magician.org.
Society of American Magicians (SAM), the oldest magicians’ group in existence. SAM has members worldwide but most chapters are in the United States. There website is www.magicsam.com.
The Magic Circle, the UK’s largest magic club. Headquartered in London (where they maintain a museum of magic), there are local groups throughout the UK. They can be visited at www.themagiccircle.co.uk.
Magic Collectors’ Association (MCA), although much smaller and a bit harder to find than the other groups, the MCA is dedicated to the history and preservation of magic instead of its performance. You can learn more about the MCA at www.magican.com/mca.
Like any other field, auction catalogs of authenticated collections can be an incredible resource. Although any auction house may offer an item or two or even the odd collection, there are also a few auction houses that specialize in magic. One of the great ways to learn about antique magic props and related materials is to see what is being offered by these institutions. Probably the best of these houses for someone hoping to learn more about magic props is Potter and Potter Auctions, a Chicago based auction house that routinely deals in magic and related items (such as gambling devices). They offer print catalogs and free downloadable digital copies as well at www.potterauctions.com.
Magic holds a special place in the hearts of many people. Just as the craft of magic itself keeps alive many traditional secret skills, the posters, props and souvenirs of yesterday allow us to keep alive some spirit of yesterday’s performers. Collecting magic related antiques can be rewarding, but you must be careful when making purchases. While there are many reproductions and misunderstood items to be found, there are still real, legitimate connections to yesterday’s great performers waiting to be found.