Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The greatest Houdini auction ever

I just purchased a November 1980 issue of Magicol magazine for the terrific cover photo of Houdini and his Humber motor car (more on the Humber later this week!). But it is the article inside, "Houdini's Last Sale?", that really blew my mind.

Click to enlarge
The article is by Houdini collector Mario Carrandi who reports on what I believe was the greatest Houdini auction ever. No, I'm not talking about the big Sid Radner, Manny Weltman, or Christopher collections auctions (which offered collectors no bargains, that's for sure), but a little known 1980 auction of Houdini's own personal artifacts that had somehow remained undiscovered in the basement of 278 for over 50 years.

Intrigued? It gets better...or worse, depending on how you look at this.

The Bonnano family purchased 278 from Bess in 1927. Rose Bonnano lived in the house until her death in the 1970s. After she died, her sister-in-law cleaned out the house and discovered "several trunks and cases," as well as framed wall photos and furniture, all which had belonged to Harry and Bess Houdini. Included in the find were scores of original posters, lobby advertisements for his films, handcuffs, advertising material, books, a scrapbook, and even a brass bed. It added up to 110 lots of never-before-seen Houdini material.

The amazing find was consigned to Howard E. Wikoff's New Jersey Auction Service. The auction was only advertised with a small advert in the June 6, 1980 The New York Times Sunday edition (above), and was held at the Church of the Guardian Angel in Allendade on June 13, 1980. Despite the lack of fanfare, the major Houdini collectors of the day were on hand along with about 200 bidders and spectators.

What was sold (and unsold!) that day, and the prices realized, is truly unbelievable to modern collectors. Houdini's scrapbook sold for only $250. Original sepia photos of Houdini, Bess, Hardeen, Mama, etc. sold for about $150 apiece (with Mario nabbing most of them). Two framed pictures of Houdini's parents, which presumably had hung on the wall of 278, sold for a paltry $40 or $50 apiece. "The frames alone were worth it," notes Mario. Handcuffs sold for about $250 apiece, and a letter sold for $150, which at the time Mario considered "terribly overpriced." Ha!

Mario didn't report how much the original posters sold for, but he notes there were about 20 posters from between 1912-1915, including a Milk Can poster (one of these sold in 2005 for the record price of $78,664) and an unpublished poster of "a young Houdini shackled with a red background". All were in beautiful condition. Unfortunately, the auctioneer glued all but two of them to plywood with Elmer's Glue because he thought that would give them "flea market flair." Ouch!

Mario came away with 15 of the 20 posters, as well as some hand colored lobby advertisements for The Man From Beyond. He also bid against escape artist Steranko for this beautiful framed 50 by 40 inch hand lettered portrait, getting it for $1,500.

Incredibly, "a giant framed photo" of Rabbi Weiss, several original sepia pics of Bess and Mama, and the brass bed did not sell. I'm especially interested to hear 278 contained two pictures of Rabbi Weiss. I only know of one photo of Houdini's father. Does this mean there's another out there?

Houdini's desk, which had been used during seances inside 278, was sold privately.

Mario estimated the total auction added up to $12,000. Heck, that's what a single Houdini item sold for in a recent Martinka auction.

What a mind-blowing find, and what an incredible opportunity to acquire some true Houdini treasures before the insanity of price inflation hit the Houdini market. But what I love most is these were items that were personal to Houdini. To own his own portraits of his parents that hung on the walls of 278...incredible.

What kills me is I was a full-blown Houdini fanatic in 1980 with a father who encouraged me to seek out some good "Houdini investments." If only I known about this auction...

Just thought I'd share the pain.


  1. I never heard about it either and I'm on the east coast! I had heard about this sale off and on in the years after but was never quite sure what it was all about. Thanks for clearing it up. I think the Desk is actually here in VA if I recall correctly. Great job as usual.

  2. I've also only heard minor references to this find of Houdini material in 278, so I was thrilled to find all the details here. I'm also, frankly, just sick with envy. :p

  3. Oh ... my ... God. And to think it was only 30 years ago.

    I'm glad you said that you've only ever seen one photo of Houdini's father. I was wondering if that might be the only one in existence because it keeps popping up in all the books.

  4. But the other thing ... how/why did Bess leave it all behind? It's almost like she moved out in a tearing hurry which I guess she did really. I know you can't keep everything but still.

  5. I thought about that myself. It might have been a case where she asked (or paid) to keep the items in storage in 278. Maybe the idea is she would get them when she settled, but she never really settled. Then after she died, they just remained. That basement was probably filled with the Bonnanos stuff. These items could have been long buried.

  6. Why didn't Mario mention the Milk Can he bought at that auction and later sold to Fred Pitella.
    It is now owned by Randall Bell.

  7. There was a Milk Can in that auction? That I didn't know. He makes no mention of this in the Magicol article.

  8. Bess left a lot of stuff behind. She'd known the Bonnano family many years, and that is a huge house and in Houdini's day, it was crammed with stuff--all kinds of stuff that Houdini used or was interested in. The basement is almost half a city block long.
    Rose's brother Charles was the priest that conducted Bessie's funeral.
    I assume they were keeping these things for her. We know Rose had the Bell Lock cuff for a long time. She told me, "the plumbers took the Bell Lock cuff."

  9. Interesting. Thanks. Yes, Charles was the one who consigned this stuff to the auction house, and he was the one who sold the seance desk privately. Mario mentions him by name in the article.

  10. Just discovered this blog forwared by a friend as my name, and my Houdini acquisition was discussed........

    Hello John! You were one of my "Houdini buyers" some 20/30 years ago.You were just a little kid.

    For the record, I bought every significant (to me)single item in that sale that lasted some 4 hours, except for a Houdini Scrapbook, that sold in the beginning of the sale for $250, Milbourne Christopher told me it was too much money! Dorothy Dietrich bought it. The other lot was some 8 to 10 cabinets of Houdini and his dog, all MINT some with the original tissue wraps. I don't remember the price,ONE pair of cuffs, a "common" Houdini letter (simple TLS content) and lastly a travel trunk that Steranko acquired and told me that he did, not because it had the HOUDINI lettering on it, but because there was a poster in the bottom (never verified it).

    AFTER THE SALE, the great goodies showed up and sold privately over a period of some 4/5 weeks (cabinets, milk can, desk, etc etc). Rose's nephew ran a business in Long Island restoring car vinyl tops, he lived modestly. On one of my visits to him after the sale (I heard of him and referred to by the autioneer)and after I had spent some substantial monies (right after sale the prices went UP, who ever heard of an "idiot" like me spending $450 for the Milk Can Escape).

    I purchased on additional material, ie photos, pitch books, programs,etc etc and mytally was running in the thousands, he told me to go to the basement where he kept the larger stuff and pick whatever I wanted. I was overwhelmed! The rest is history.

    So, that is the sale in a nutshell. There were no catalogs,auction listing, no media coverage, no magic magazines articles before or AFTER the sale. Who cared!it was just "HOUDINI".

    The auctioneer didnt even give you an invoice unless you requested one that he hand wrote! There were no COA's, certifications, etc etc..there was no need and we, ie all bidders. didn't even request one!

    I have to confess, in closing, that the Saturday following the sale I went to the auctioneers home to pick up the balance of my purchases, as they did not fit in my car the day of the sale.

    I went and emptied THREE additional travelling trunks with Houdini's lettering on them. Took what I wanted and forfeited the trunks. Who would want those dirty trunks, much less in my house after my wife almost divorced me when I spent my total annual income on Houdini some $36K plus!

    The auctioneer said that he would "dump them" for me. BIG MISTAKE! I admit it. Never saw the trunks again, so he really did.

    All in all I spent close to $30,000, AFTER the sale....

    So now Mr Culliton can die in peace knowing where the Can came from.

  11. Hello Mario! So glad you found my blog and this post. Yes, I certainly was one of your buyers back when I was young and before Houdini price inflation made me have to bow out of the rare stuff. But I still have your catalogs and mailings. Some wonderful, wonderful things in those.

    Thank you for all the additional info. Such an amazing auction and opportunity. I think I've only one seen one of those dog cabinets. I will direct Patrick to your post here. He did mention to me that a Milk Can came out of this sale and I wondered why it wasn't in your article. Now I know. :)

    Thanks again. And please stick around. (And I added your name to the post per your request -- hence the time stamp is different. Not sure why that didn't work for you. Sorry.)

  12. The house was TOTALLY cleaned out when Bess sold it to Rose and her brother. They purchased the house for $3000.00, and it took till the seventies for her to pay the note. There is
    good reaason to believe that the auction was the brain child of Joe Dunninger. He was not a close friend to either Houdini
    or Hardeen, and the stories of his purchases of handcuffs claiming them to be Houdinis are ledgenary. Just look at the
    display boards from the Houdini museum.
    I personally believe Dunninger who was retired, contact Rose, in a effort to make them both some money,and for Dunninger to
    let go of items he no longer cared about, and that Henry Mueller did not want for his museum.