Friday, August 22, 2014

Under the radar

Potter & Potter's massive auction of Houdiniana is just 15 hours away, and we've only scratched the surface in highlighting the many historic Houdini items in this amazing sale. Here's a last look at a few more notable lots that have flown somewhat under the radar:

Lot 66: Houdini’s holographic notes and sketches re Morritt
Houdini’s holographic notes and sketches regarding Morritt’s Black and White illusion. Together with Houdini’s notes on Morritt’s Spirit Table routine. Four 8vo pages, handwritten on the versos of membership blanks to The Magicians’ Club of London, of which Houdini served as president. Houdini details the construction and working of this large and clever illusion requiring a special arrangement of double glass and calico fabric, which were used in combination to conceal two assistants who are later produced from the cabinet. The third page shows what is perhaps the only detailed diagram of an illusion in Houdini’s hand to be made available for public sale. Hardeen would later write of the Black and White Illusion that it was “the most startling of small cabinet productions.” The fourth page, dated Sunday March 29, 1914, tersely describes Morritt’s spirit table routine, called here by Houdini, “A great big laughing hit.” Houdini describes the two gimmicks that make the trick work and also writes out directions for the routine: “Com[mittee] place[s] hands on table & slowly? Rises. Then makes er[r]atic jumps! This gets laughs.”
Estimate: $5,000 – $7,000
SOLD FOR $10,000

Patrick Culliton states: "Thanks to the notes Houdini took down (on Magician's Club stationary) as Morritt described "The Black and White" illusion, we finally know more about this lost masterpiece. The last anyone heard of this illusion, Hardeen had it up for sale in a 1945 Conjurers Magazine. Then he died. He'd performed it at least once on an SAM show. Houdini's notes, his handwriting, his drawing. A lost Morritt secret. This four page explanation with a Houdini drawing is Magic History gold."

Lot 53: Important archive of 64 letters from Theo Hardeen.
Important archive of 64 letters from Theo Hardeen to Sidney Radner. Spanning 1936 – 1945, and covering a wide range of topics, most importantly the various props, escape devices, handcuffs, locks, and Houdiniana Radner purchased from Hardeen. Hardeen explains the working of various articles, and also describes many of the escape devices and handcuffs sold to Radner over the course of their relationship. These included many of Houdini’s most famous escapes: The Water Torture Cell (in the correspondence, Hardeen refers to it repeatedly as the “U.S.D.” – short for “Upside Down,” as both he and Houdini called it), and the Mail Bag, as well as a handcuff cabinet, the Iron Man [Iron Maiden escape], and various pieces of Houdini memorabilia and photos, leg irons, keys, lockpicks, handcuffs. In one letter, Hardeen offers to sell Robert-Houdin’s trapeze automaton, Antonio Diavolo (referred to incorrectly as “Pyshio”).

Many of Hardeen’s notes are tantalizing: “…I am sending you a three sheet litho of the Chinese Water Torture Cell…” In one letter, Hardeen alludes to the fact that the “trap and irons” for Houdini’s famous illusion of Walking Through a Brick Wall will probably have to be thrown away, as that portion of the apparatus is simply too big and bulky to ship. In another he writes, “I saw Houdini’s Milk Can today and it is a beaut.” Several letters specifically list items Hardeen is selling to Radner, with asking prices (two punishment suits and two straitjackets for $25.00, for example). Others include Hardeen’s take on current affairs, including the biography of Houdini by Harold Kellock (“This book is full of lies, and I am writing a book with a lot of “quotes” and correcting them.”). Letters are written on a variety of Hardeen’s letterheads, most being 4to sheets, and most accompanied by original mailing covers, hand addressed by Hardeen to Radner. Length varies from short notes to three pages. Several holographic letters on hotel stationery, written en route, are part of the archive. In the first letter, dating to 1936, Hardeen addresses Radner quite formally. In the last letter in the archive, Elsie Hardeen writes to Radner as a close friend, just after her husband’s death, in a familiar and friendly tone. Most letters are signed with Hardeen’s nickname “Dash,” which was given to him by his mother, as is explained in one of the letters. A remarkable and significant archive, and essential to the understanding of Houdini, his brother, and the lasting fame of the Houdini name.
Estimate: $5,000 – $7,000
SOLD FOR $7,500

I would love to read and study these letters. I feel like the story of Sidney Radner and Hardeen is an untold and even misunderstood story of magic. I expect that story is all right here.

Lot 81: 16mm film of Hardeen’s overboard packing box escape.
16mm film of Hardeen’s overboard packing box escape. Short silent film of Hardeen escaping from a wooden crate after he has been nailed inside and the box has been sunken under water. Likely a later print. With a digital transfer of the original, on DVD. Originally in the collection of Dr. Morris N. Young.
Estimate: $300 – $400
SOLD FOR $1,300

Film of Hardeen doing the overboard box escape! How did we not know about this until now?

Lot 115: Houdini, Harry. Candid Photograph of Houdini and Bess
Candid Photograph of Houdini and Bess in Russia with Houdini’s notations. July, 1903. Houdini sits at a table with his wife and others in a garden, the American flag in the background. Holographic notes on the verso in his hand read, “Moscow Russia July 4 – 1903/Celebrating with American Consul in Russia.” Below Houdini’s writing is the penciled statement, “Property of B. Ernst.” 5 x 3 ½”. Old tear repaired with tape.
Estimate: $400 – $600
SOLD FOR $1,400

What I especially love about this photo is that Houdini talked about this July 4th celebration in his Dramatic Mirror column. Read: The Handcuff King's blog: Breaking into Russia.

Lot 171: Candid photo of Beatrice Houdini’s 35th birthday party
Candid photograph of Beatrice Houdini’s 35th Birthday Party. New York, 1910. Taken in the Houdini home at 278 W. 113th St., New York. Family and friends fill the image, including Mrs. C. Weiss, Mrs. Rahner (Bess’s mother), Houdini, Bess, Theo & Elsie Hardeen, and other members of the Weiss family. On the verso, in Theo Hardeen’s hand, each person is identified by name. Houdini has marked himself on and his wife with the letter “X” on the photo, and signed his name above his image. 7 x 5”. One corner damaged, wear and chips at margins.
Estimate: $1,000 – $1,500
SOLD FOR $4000

Harry, Bess, Mama, Hardeen, and a great look at the inside of 278... Magnificent!

And there is still so much more, but we are all out of time. You can view and bid on all the items in the Potter & Potter auction now at Live Auctioneers. The auction itself starts tomorrow at 8AM PT.

Happy bidding!



  1. From what I can see from the bidding, many items look hot with multiple bids. Overnight and by the start of the auction, I think bidding will intensify.

  2. Great post John! That last photo of Bess' birthday party is fascinating. I think we're looking at the inside front parlor room on the first floor where the two main windows are. The dark hallway shadow on the extreme right might lead to the front door.

    Photos of Houdini in Russia are rare.

    1. Indeed, photos of Houdini in Russia are super rare, that's one of the reasons I so like this image/lot. Too bad it's a little small, but you can see Houdini has that unique haircut (with his hair parted on the side) that we see in all the Russian advertising materials, etc.

  3. I almost mentioned that haircut and I'm glad you did. It seems he styled his hair this way when he visited Russia.

    I enlarged the Bess party photo and noticed two things. Hardeen suddenly jumps at you, and I could swear I a railing right above the gentleman on the extreme right wearing the black bowtie. Since there are matching windows in the back section of 278, it's possible this party was seated at the rear of the house.

  4. Replies
    1. Things are extreme with this auction. I was really miffed at missing out all the Houdini and Bess photographs and cards -- too rich for my blood. Did anyone manage to nab anything? I was lucky and managed to score the 1924 Hippodrome program, but everything else was way out of my reach.

      - Meredith

  5. You are not alone Meredith. I came up empty handed and could have won one Houdini photograph but I fell short on my maximum bid by about $100.00. Most of the Houdini and Bess photos went well into the thousands. If you have a blue collar occupation, you wouldn't stand a chance in this auction.

    I also fell short on the Culliton Locked Set books, but more copies show up now and again at magic auctions.