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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Houdini's Double Fold Death Defying Mystery at auction

Potter & Potter have posted their massive August 23 Houdini sale online at Live Auctioneers. As expected, it's an amazing collection of rare Houdiniana, certainly the biggest and most important Houdini auction in years. While there are several rarities that alone would be the star of any auction, I expect most eyes (and paddles) will be on Lot 39, the original box used by Houdini in his Double Fold Death Defying Mystery. Until now, I had only heard rumors that this famous Houdini prop still existed. But now here it is for all to see!

Click to enlarge.

The Double Fold Death Defying Mystery is an enhanced version of Houdini's famous Milk Can escape. The Milk Can became widely imitated after Houdini introduced it in 1908, so the following year, he revealed the Double Fold, in which the Milk Can was also locked inside a large wooden chest. The chest is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship built by Houdini and Jim Collins. Without giving away any secrets, there are aspects to this construction that would later be used in the Water Torture Cell, so this escape can be seen as an important step to that Houdini masterpiece.


Even after Houdini created the Water Torture Cell, he continued to perform the Double Fold Death Defying Mystery. In fact, he performed this escape during his 1914 engagement at Hammerstein's Victoria in New York when he famously performed Walking Through A Brick Wall. (A candidate for time travel would be July 15, 1914, when you could see Houdini do an overboard box escape in New York Harbor in the morning; then the Brick Wall, Needles, and the Double Fold Death Defying Mystery that night.)

While there is a well-known poster for the escape, there are no real-life photos of Houdini doing the Double Fold. However, there is an image of Hardeen in performance (he inherited the apparatus from Houdini), which until now gave us our only photographic look at the chest.

Hardeen in the Double Fold (Jim Collins is holding the lid).

The auction includes a Hardeen playbill in which he's written to Sidney Radner: "This is the box escape. How would you like to do it? Not another in the world. H." However, it doesn't appear the chest went to Sid, which explains why it never showed up at the Houdini Magic Hall of Fame and has remained largely unseen (and in beautiful condition). The auction description says that the chest went from Houdini to Hardeen to Jack Lawain of Monmouth, Illinois, a well-known dealer in collectible and used magic props and ephemera.

The outer dimensions of the box measure 29 1⁄4 x 29 1⁄4 x 38 1⁄2". A ring in the bottom of the box (22 3⁄4" in diameter) shows where the Milk Can was set during performances. Also included is a later canvas cover for the crate. The auction estimate is $20,000 – $25,000. Bidding starts at $10,000. This is certainly going to be one to watch!


You can view and bid on all the items in this amazing auction now via at Live Auctioneers. You can also purchase the auction catalog or download a free PDF from the Potter & Potter website.

Stay turned for a look at more historic items from this important Houdini auction.

UPDATE: Joe Notaro of HHCE reminded me of this brief look at the Double Fold chest with the Milk Can inside from the Gene Gamache documentary Houdini (People Came To See Him Die). Thanks Joe.


UPDATE 2: For a better look at the photo above and some speculation about what happened to the Double Fold can, check out: Unfolding the Double Fold mysteries.

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21 comments:

  1. Can we be certain it's the real deal? All these years and the whereabouts have been chiefly unknown? Hardeen's certainly possible. Houdini's, questionable. Next the Margery cabinet.?

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    1. I didn't mean to make it sound like this came out of nowhere. It was just unknown to me. Those who travel in the higher ranks of the magic world and collecting appear to have known about it. Bill Kalush mentioned it in his Skirball talk in 2011.

      And this is a complicated and expensive construction. I don't see Hardeen building one of his own. He really didn't build many of his own props. He used the Houdini props that were available to him.

      The auction states that it has a letter of provenance showing the chain of ownership. I trust it.

      The Margery cabinet... Yes! Let's get that one out next. :)

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  2. I can see the similarities between the torture cell and this devise in terms of its "gaff". Very interesting how this escape is so very closely linked with the USD.......never knew this before. No way DC is going to let this one go. It's destined to be in his collection.

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    1. Indeed. It's an important piece of magic apparatus beyond the obvious.

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  3. There were two version of the milk can with two different modes of escape. Knowing the workings of this box tells me that it was designed to work with one of the milk can versions and not the other. Perry from NJ.

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  4. Hardeen had his own career and had a number of his own items constructed. Unfortunately history is changed too often to make a Hardeen item a Houdini trinket for profit. You would think from some that Hardeen never legitimately owned his own equipment and only got into the magic biz after his brother's death.

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    1. That's certainly true of handcuffs and at least one Milk Can, but I'm not sure what else has been incorrectly attributed to Houdini. Recall that Dash left performing in 1916 to run the FDC, and when he returned in 1927, he did so with the inherited show and props and those are what have largely survived. Also recall that we sometimes wondered about Pat Culliton's sub trunk because there was film of Hardeen using it. Then, boom, we find of photo of Houdini using the same truck in 1900. But, true, there has been confusion -- some of started by Hardeen himself.

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  5. Hardeen never bothered to have a USD built for him because Houdini's cell was too small. Collins was still alive and could have done the job. Probably too expensive to make another USD, given the Depression and other problems Hardeen must have experienced.

    Would Hardeen have a DFDDM custom built for him? Maybe, or maybe not. It would have cost quite a bit to have Collins make one of these. The locking mechanism does not look simple. If this box is a Hardeen duplicate, it's still a piece of magic history.

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    1. After Houdini's death, I don't think Hardeen had the money or ambition to be inventing or constructing escape apparatus. My sense is performing was a job to him, not a passion. He used what he could.

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  6. Agreed. Inventing and constructing sophisticated escape apparatus did not seem to be Hardeen's forte. Why would he attempt to reconstruct the DFDDM if Houdini's original was probably in his basement?

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  7. Hardeen had his own milk can constructed.

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    1. He did. Probably because he couldn't fit in any of Houdini's cans.

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  8. Joe Notaro points out that the DFDDM we see in the documentary photo appears to be smaller than the Hardeen/auction box. This pic isn't great quality, but there appear to be less slats. Maybe Hardeen and Collins built a slightly taller box to hold Hardeens taller can? The lid could remain the same.

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  9. Good point made. The box in the Gene Gamache documentary has four wide planks. The box at auction and photo with Hardeen has six planks. Two different boxes.

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    1. Maybe. It's hard to glean much detail from the photo as posted here. It's pretty low quality. Playing at speed in the doc itself it looks like it has 5 planks.

      It appears this pic may be inside the Houdini Challenge Scrapbook that at one time belonged to Sid Radner. Not sure who owns that today. Be great to get a better image.

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  10. For a somewhat better image of that documentary photo CLICK HERE.

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  11. Photo helps! Clearly different planks than the one being offered for auction.

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  12. Could this be Houdini's original box adapted for Hardeen's height?

    Hardeen had a Milk Can made for him but these were not too hard to come by. Dealers were already selling copies not long after Houdini unveiled it.

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  13. So those who worry about the DFDDM being Hardeen's and not Houdini's, don't fret. Two of Hardeen's scrapbooks with newspaper clippings sold for $63,000 with buyers premium in a 2011 auction. On average higher than a Houdini scrapbook at $31,500 each. Not bad Theo, not bad.

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  14. One thing I remember.....I visited the Houdini museum in Niagra Falls several times back in the 80's. I remember seeing that milk can with the dummy inside sitting up on a corner shelf. My thought at the time was it was too small to fit an average man. It seemed a prototype rather than an actual milk can used for stage performance. Perry from NJ.

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  15. UPDATE on where the box came from HERE.

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