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 Not only is it unpublished, but it's extremely rare to see any original item that pre-dates Houdini's fame.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."