Saturday, October 25, 2014

Metamorphosis mine

I once heard the mighty Arthur Moses give excellent advice to collectors who might not have the resources of a David Copperfield (or an Arthur Moses). Don't buy up all the latest Houdini bobble-heads, etc. Be discerning and use your money to buy just one quality Houdini item each year. After several years, you will have a respectable collection of some true value. It's advice that I've taken to heart.

This is my "Moses Buy" of 2014, and I still can't believe it is mine. This is one of the earliest professional photos of Harry and Bess Houdini in existence. It's a surprisingly large image, 6.5 x 8, and was probably taken in 1894-95. As far as I know, it has never been published. If the image looks familiar, it's because it was used to illustrate part of The Houdinis first Metamorphosis poster. A beauty!


I won this photo in last week's Profiles in History auction, and picked it up from their Calabasas headquarters yesterday. The auction included a handful of Houdini items that sold for surprisingly high prices -- a signed photo for $6000, a collection of letters for $25,000 -- yet, in my mind, this photo was somewhat of a steal at $1400, despite the poor condition (which certainly helped me get this). Not only is it unpublished, but it's extremely rare to see any original item that pre-dates Houdini's fame. By their nature, these are fantastically scarce. How many of these photos could the struggling Houdinis have afforded to make? And certainly no one was saving these as collectibles back then. I feel like there is a pre-1900 premium that goes along with items such as this.

The photo is now the oldest Houdini item in my collection and the only original artifact I have that pre-dates his fame. And it has Bessie on it. I love it.

I made a 600dpi scan that shows up some nice details. The Metamorphosis trunk looks like a simple hinged box and appears to be the same trunk from The Brothers Houdini days. It's also interesting to see that the trunk has air holes in the front. There is some curious writing on the back (not in Houdini's hand, unfortunately) which, as far as I can tell, reads: "Harry and Bessie Houdini in orig / [illegible] please return [illegible] J.C. Wollam Walters, OKL."

Below is a scan of this writing. I invite anyone to try and make out the words better than I have.

Mystery writing on back of photo (click to enlarge).

Metamorphosis poster featuring illustrated photo image.

Thank you Arthur Moses for inspiring me to go after this beauty. Time to start saving for my "Moses Buy" of 2015.

UPDATE: I can now more confidently date this photo as 1894. On page 30 of Houdini His Life and Art by James Randi there is a solo photo of Bess from this same session. On it is written: "1st Professional Picture 1894." It also appears The Houdinis made good use of this photo session by taking some non-magic shots to advertise themselves as "The Rahners, America's Greatest Comedy Act."

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19 comments:

  1. Congratulations John! I figured you had won this photo when you announced this auction last week. It is a beauty so preserve it well. Mr. Moses gave you good advice. I'm sure this photo will one day surface behind a glass showcase as part of one of your future exhibits.

    A few observations: This photo looks like it was one of a series of photos taken in one session. The photographer had them pose in different ways in front of the trunk. There is the classic photo we all know where they pose in front of the roped trunk. You can see those thick trunk ropes on the floor in front of Bess.

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    1. Thanks Leo.

      Yes, it's definitely from that same series of shots, probably the first set of professional photos they ever had taken (I've never seen any that appear to be any earlier). These would all be used to illustrate their posters, and I'm always watching out for the photographic versions of those illustrations. That was why I was excited to see this one show up. I'd never seen it before. Still haven't seen the photo of Houdini bound -- the "before" shot.

      This will certainly show up in a case at a future talk. :)

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  2. One more thing about this photo. There must be other photos of this session floating around out there and in collections. Houdini most likely arrived at the lithograph company with a folder of these photos under his arm for the artist to copy. I'm sure your antenna is up for any more photos of this session that might turn up in future auctions.

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    1. I'll need to flip through the catalogs of some of the recent big Houdini auctions to see if any others have shown up recently. I can't recall any.

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  3. Congrats!...amazing photo, when you think, this is the illusion, that started it all...thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks Adam. Yep, another reasons to love this image. It depicts one of the all-time great magic tricks in its earliest state.

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  4. John Hinson great nephew. of Bess and Harry HoudiniOctober 25, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    What a great photo
    After still after 88 years what still coming up.that had been unseen.

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  5. Congrats John. Nice one. Have a look in Bruce MacNab's book. It might be one of those series of photos, although they are rather small to see all the detail. Thanks for the share.
    PS....you will have to treat yourself next year.....two Houdini items...the big half century ! (Apologies if I have miscalculated)
    ;-)

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    1. I think that great photo on the cover of Bruce's book is from this same session.

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  6. J. Eduardo CaamañoOctober 26, 2014 at 4:22 AM

    Congratulations John, beautiful item.

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  7. Great shot. Also great to see them both at this young age.
    A fabulous buy. We were busy doing shows that day and so could not get much.
    A few little items. glad this went to the right person.

    Could you put up a blow up of both their faces?

    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich
    The Houdini Museum
    Scranton, PA
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

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  8. "Harry and Bessie Houdini in original get up. (?)

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  9. Glad you like it but a lot of people could have had it, but I think the condition stopped them. Congrats on a new item in your collection. I would rather pay more for a better shaped one, just my thoughts

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    1. I think you're right. I think the condition made this gettable.

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  10. What do you suppose the photo of his last performance may be worth?/
    (shown in the previous post) To me its awesome, I mean his last show!!

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    1. Oh, that isn't a photo of his actual last performance at the Garrick. It's just a general photo from his 3 Shows in 1 (which is the show he did at the Garrick).

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  11. I can now more confidently date this photo as 1894. On page 30 of Houdini His Life and Art by James Randi there is a solo photo of Bess from this same session. On it is written in what appears to be Bess's hand: "1st Professional Picture 1894."

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