Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A Water Torture Cell has been discovered in Canada

Today I have something truly astounding to share. Below are photos of what appears to be an exact duplicate of Houdini's Water Torture Cell. This was purchased from an elderly man in Canada who, unfortunately, would not provide any information about where he got it. The buyer of the cell wishes to remain anonymous. I have NO idea if this is the biggest find of all time or the biggest fake. But there are aspects of this cell that are very intriguing.





Here's everything I know.

The cell appears to be the same dimensions as Houdini's and shows clear signs of age. Of course, aging can be faked, so the buyer called in a team of antique dealers who gave the cell a thorough examination. They concluded that the wood was mahogany and the patina indicated that it was old. From a sample of the wood finish they concluded it was free of modern poly urethane and has a lacquer finish with several coats of wax. This was used in Houdini’s time for furniture finishing etc. They called the many brass slotted screws archaic and seldom used in the modern world. They also noted the brass was very damaged and pitted and appeared very old. They could not find any current suppliers for the handles, which they believe contains more copper than in the brass trim. After being told the cell was possibly made in England, they suggested the handles may have been forged by Sheffield Forge Masters.

The cell was shipped in one piece, as seen in the above pics. The buyer has not yet discovered if it disassembles in the same manner as Houdini's cell. The stocks are locked to the top and no keys came with it, so the buyer has yet to examine the inside. The plugs are missing, as is the right front locking hasp. (Curiously, this was the same hasp that was seen to be badly bent on the cell that was on display at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame before its restoration and destruction in a fire.)

But the big news is the cell IS gaffed in exactly the same manner as Houdini's cell. This took several days and a lot of elbow grease to uncover. But this is no minor detail. This is a working Water Torture Cell!

I should say the buyer is not a stranger to me and is someone I consider trustworthy. But I have not examined the cell myself. All I've seen are these photos, plus a few others of the gaff which, obviously, I'm keeping confidential.

However, I have no idea who the seller was, and his refusal to provide any information is both infuriating and suspicious. Anything can be faked these days, so provenance is everything. So I'm not taking a position on this myself. All I can do is offer up a few speculative possibilities:

  1. This is a deliberate fake. (Because of the lack of provenance, I have to default to this as the #1 possibility. However, the findings of the antique dealers argue against this.)
  2. This is a genuinely old Water Torture Cell made by persons unknown. (But how many people could recreate the highly secret gaff? And if this is the case, what's the harm in revealing the provenance?)
  3. This is another Houdini Water Torture Cell, possibly the cell he made for Miss Trixe in 1912. (This would be the dream! But, again, why not provide some provenance if there's nothing to hide?)
  4. This is somehow the original, unrestored Water Torture Cell from the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. (While not something I want to believe, I have to suggest this as a possibility.)
  5. It's something I've not considered. (Theories welcome.)

So there you have it. The lucky new owner has allowed me to post this with the hope that going public might bring some new information. The cell itself is not for sale. So if you have any information or just want to offer up your own theories, feel free to share in the comment below. And if you have some private information, feel free to email me.

UPDATE: Below is one major difference between this cell and the original restored cell in the David Copperfield collection. Note the hinge. Like big interlaced knuckles on Houdini's cell (made to last). More of a typical hinge on the Canadian mystery cell. In fact, the entire locking plate looks entirely different to me. The knuckle-like hinge is also visible in pre-restoration pics of the WTC in the museum. So this argues against theory #4.

Click to enlarge.

UPDATECanadian Mystery Cell owners revealed.

Related:

67 comments:

  1. And on National Puzzle Day, no less! Looking forward to learning more and thank you for sharing it with us!

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  2. Amazing, John! Boy, you weren't kidding about this being something potentially momentous. One thing about the lack of provenance - while it may suggest fakery, there could certainly be another reason for withholding this information (I'm not even going to speculate here, as it may not be appropriate to do so, but imagine some of the other possibilities.) And what purpose would it serve to create such an elaborate and seemingly authentic fake? Well, money - but if the goal were to sell it for an astronomical figure, wouldn't a fake like this be a pretty extreme way of getting that figure, and wouldn't you have to find just the right buyer, and wouldn't it have to be relatively immune from suspicion? The possibility of it being the WTC from the Hall of Fame occurred to me too, but that also seems far-fetched (but I'll take a closer look at the pics I took of that one just out of curiosity.) I would love to believe it's #3 above (or a similar scenario if one existed), but of course, more evidence would be needed.) But the faking aspect still seems rather far-fetched to me. In any case, thanks, John - this is just too tantalizing! (One more possibility: Harry has finally come back and is reviving his act!)

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    1. Tom, would you be willing to share your photos of the USD you took in the museum with me? I'm trying to collect all the photos I can for a project I'm working on and would appreciate any help you might provide. Please reply and,if you will, send them to John for forwarding to me. Conversely, you can contact John for my e-mail contact info and contact me directly. Can you help me?

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  3. Incredible find!!

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  4. WOW is right! I can't wait to see more details of this unfold! No matter the outcome (real or fake), it sure is great to see new pictures of the USD.

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  5. A little late but my guess yesterday was going to be a water torture cell....

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  6. Henry Muller had a duplicate cell created by a craftsman in Canada. I believe he gave it to Appleton during a collectors convention in Appleton. I wonder if this has something to do with that. I asked Henry if John Gaughan had fabricated it and Henry told me he had it done in Canada and never told John. Instead, he kept complaining to John that he needed the restored cell. Henry said, "If John knew I had a mock up to display, he'd still be restoring the real cell."

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    1. Pat, then Henry must have had the foresight to have someone disassemble ( to some extent ) and measure and document and photograph the USD in order to get a duplicate made just in case. When do you think Henry put this duplicate on display? It thrills me to think that actual dimensioned shop plans of the USD might exist out there somewhere. I've never seen any or heard of any. I know Henry gave access to people over the years and photos and measurements were taken but I tend to think these were rough drawings only and could not have the detail to duplicate interior mechanisms and construction details. What do you think about that?

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    2. Henry put it in the display after he sent the original to John Gaughan to be restored. I am positive this is the fake that Henry had built. I believe I see the work of a master craftsman, Ted Fenton. It was Ted who smuggled me in to where the pieces of the original cell were being stored after the fire. This duplicate has nothing to do with the fire, but, I am sure I saw it, on display, at the Appleton convention. I recognize it.

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  7. VERY interesting and a possibly exciting discovery.

    I think I remember Milbourne Christopher telling me years ago that he had searched for a certain torture cell (and an airplane) with no success.

    Was the torture cell that Sid Radner bought from Hardeen, the one used in the 1926 final/fatal tour, or _____ ?

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    1. See photo in April 6, 2014 post here about 3 Shows in One. John Hinson supplied it and it shows Houdini on stage around 1926 time frame. Behind him is USD that looks a lot like the USD Sid Radner got from Hardeen.

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  8. Check out my update comparison pic. Big difference there.

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  9. Quality of the hardware on the Copperfield owned cell is so much more substantial and indicative to the correct time period.

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  10. Wow! Intriguing, as usual anything related to Houdini is almost always shrouded in mystery.

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  11. I can't stop looking at these pics. Another difference in the hardware is the "notch" in the lower metal flashing/rim of the stocks. In the cell displayed at the Houdini Hall of Fame, the "notch" is facing downward. In all other photos of the Copperfield and Gaughan restored cells, that notch is facing upwards. Same with this Canadian mystery cell. Hmmm...

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    1. The notch you speak of is the cutout on the angle iron lifting frame which the stock assembly fitted into. The frame was used to lift the closed stock assembly and performer up and over the USD. The Canadian museum had put it on upside down and so the 4 notches ( 1 at each lock position of the stocks ) were facing downwards. The notches were necessary to allow the u shaped section of the hasp on the cell box to engage the locks in the stock assembly once the 2 were together.

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  12. Well--if it's a forgery, it's a damn good one with no expense spared to get it right. Even the stock locking mechanism is spot on. Old mahogany and brass...

    If it's genuine, what could explain its existence? Supposedly HH kept cannibalizing previous cells to fabricate the newest model. It would have meant no cells were ever left intact. This model looks more like the last incarnation of the cell we see in 3 in 1.

    If genuine--could it have been a back up cell?

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  13. No way is #4 a possibility. The original USD had a split in the middle upper wooden panel of the stage left side of the cell box. This split extended horizontally between the screws on that wooden panel. This can be seen in a photo of the USD in Sid Radner's basement in 1970 before it went to the museum in Canada. The split can be seen in numerous photos taken of the USD in the museum and it can still be seen on the cover of November 1991 issue of Magic magazine after John Gaughan had restored it for Sid Radner. I don't see how the stocks in the duplicate can be locked to the top of the cell box as stated. The hasps from the cell box are clearly in the down position, hanging on the box. They are not engaged with the locks of the stocks and so the stocks are not locked to the cell box, at least not in the manner the original USD worked, unless I'm missing something....

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    1. I'll reply to myself now that I see one hasp looks like it is still engaged with the stock assembly. Sorry I missed that.

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  14. As far as I know, "My friend, Sid Radner was DEVASTATED with the fire in the Museum that destroyed the Houdini Water Torture Cell."He told me, "Benjilini, some of the original pieces will be auctioned off(pieces of its destruction is framed at "Fantasma's Houdini Museum" located in NYC). So, as far as I know, this cannot be the "original" one. As a on the "art of magic," we tend to have additional copies of some of our effects. I do know from Sid, "Benjilini, John Gaughan made a copy of the "Water Torture Cell." As a postnote,"My friend, Sidney Radner was extremely saddened by the fire in Canada and was even more so,"that the Houdini Museum in Appleton Wisconsin, "would no longer insure his collection of Houdini items that was on display there." He told me, "I'm going to auction it all!" However, "I am always pleased to go to "Fantasma" magic and see some of "Sid's" Houdini collection proudly displayed in beautiful frames bearing "Sid's Radner" name on its many plaques. Indeed, he would be PLEASED "that part of his huge collection is permanently displayed by Roger Dreyer at "Fantasma." This was Sid's dream-Permanent display within a museum. Rest In Peace My Friend. I still miss you and especially our many conversations at the SAM Annual Conventions and via the telephone. Benjilini

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  15. Holy crap... This is a hell of a find. I am fascinated with what the provenance is. Hopefully we'll find that out.

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  16. I'm convinced this is NOT the original that was somehow hidden away. The differences in the locking plate hinge closes the door on that idea for me. And as James points out, there are other differences. I think Patrick is onto something by suggesting the is the duplicate Henry had made for display while the original was being restored. He might have even had it made much earlier. Insurance in case Sid pulled his cell. That theory ticks all the boxes. And having seen very good pics of DCs cell, I now look at these pics and this cell with different eyes. It's just not the same quality. I do see a reproduction.

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    1. I agree 100%. I think Patrick hit the nail on the head. We know that, if you have the right info and resources available, you can fake almost anything. Getting the hardware and wood and finish correct can be done. D.C. did it but not to create a fake but to make the USD he bought from Sid Radner be more authentic to the period in which Houdini used it. We know the USD underwent changes as Houdini continued to perform it. Earlier versions show a wider cell, possible to accommodate the wire cage that looked like a ladder from the front. I don't believe the Miss Trixe model of 1912 would have been exactly the same as the Houdini model of 1926, which is the one that stood in the Canadian museum. I've already stated why this cell cannot be the museum cell that was somehow not there for the fire. The lack of provenance actually connecting this USD with Houdini is the final proof for me that it was not his. Provenance would make it worth a fortune but there is none. Without that to make it valuable, why make it? Henry Mueller had all the reasons and the resources to have this one made. Most importantly, I think, is the fact that Henry Mueller had the real one in hand over a long period of time to have it available to be duplicated exactly. Henry had the original Radner cell from 1971 until 1991 when it went to John Gaughan for restoration because it was looking pretty shabby. During the time John had it he got the info he needed to make his duplicate while he was rebuilding the USD post-fire. When it came back to the museum in 1991 or 1992 after the first restoration, it resided there until the fire in 1995. Henry Mueller had motive, means and opportunity.

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    2. Henry had a right hand man, Ted Fenton, who was capable of work like that. What he couldn't do, he knew other master craftsmen who could.

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    3. Patrick, do you know when the original USD was shipped to John Gaughan in order to restore it around 1990-1991? Does anyone out there have any photos taken at the museum during this time frame while the Sid Radner cell was being restored? I've got to believe if a duplicate were on display during this time, it would have gotten photographed by someone. If a duplicate was in place of the real one, most people probably didn't know about it and think their photos are of the real thing. I wish some photo evidence would show up that might help us identify this duplicate.

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  17. This is very cool. I agree the hinges look like a lesser quality than the original. Also the hasp in the picture is very small. It wouldn't allow for a very big padlock. One thing that I wonder about though, if this is a replica why go to the trouble of building the gaff?

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    1. That is one bit that doesn't fit.

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    2. If Patrick is correct that this new cell is the one Henry had built we have to ask ourselves the same question: Why make it so detailed with a working gaff? I believe Henry, if he was the source for this cell, had it made because he wanted to have one of his very own. During the 20 years the original was in his possession nobody had the access to it as he did. He could have reverse engineered it in stages, measuring and photographing as required. Close the room for a couple days to enable this work...whatever. Then after having it built he put it away in storage. This also explains why this new cell is nowhere near as dark as the original. It has not been exposed to light anywhere near as long and that exposure is what darkens mahogany wood. Unexpectedly, in 1991 Sid Radner wanted to send the original out for restoration. Now it became convenient that Henry had a duplicate to put on display. He never planned it that way. How could he have known in advance Sid Radner would get the original restored? I am most interested if anyone visiting the museum mid 1991 took photos of the USD, if there was one on display. If there was, do the photos show this newly discovered cell or something else? In addition to this, did any visitors to the museum from mid 1992 until the fire in 1995 take photos of the USD? If so, they should look much like the restored Radner original USD shown on the cover of the November 1991 issue of MAGIC magazine. So come on folks, share your photos with John Cox taken during these 2 critical times. Doing so might help answer some of the questions surrounding this new USD as well as put some old doubts about other issues to rest.

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  18. Building the gaff is the attempt to pass it off as the lost Water Torture Cell and for us to all talk about it!

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  19. Anonymous you take me wrong. I was referring to Patrick's comment about Muller building a "replica". Not for reason of forging it which would obviously need a working gaff to pass inspection.

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  20. Abb Dickson had a water torture cell copy made. Anyone know what happened to it? He had a wonderful story he made up about it's provenance: That he had discovered a claim ticket used as book mark in one of Houdini's personal books he acquired. The claim ticket was for a very old and venerable London storage facility that had been in business during Houdini's last U.K. appearances. Abb said that he went to London and presented the claim ticket to the storage facility and they knew the item and referred to it as a "fish tank" as it has been in storage there for many decades. Total fiction, but sounded plausible enough.

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    1. See March 30, 2018 post here for that story. That cell was seen for sale on E-Bay for about $7000 but had no takers. FYI

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    2. Robert,
      Abb Dickson's forgery was a Water Torture Cell made from a shower stall by studying the photos of Houdini's cell. John Chappell helped Abb "dress" the cell used by a Carney performer named Marco. John Got me to listen in as he called Abb and said, "Are you still trying to put over that converted shower stall you got from Marco as Houdini's?" and Abb answered, "Well, John, you know I have Walter Gibson write all my publicity." I worked with the phony extensively on the movie "the Great Houdinis."

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    3. Hi Robert. I did a story on Abb's cell and his story HERE. As Pat says, pure hokum.

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  21. Well I hope the anonymous buyer is not too disappointed with the purchase? Time to move on and put this in the much to do about nothing category.

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  22. If only Henry Mueller were still around to address some of the speculation and unanswered questions!

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  23. Well, I saw the original up close and personal before it went to be restored. Then, I worked with Abb Dickson's shower stall. Then, I saw the restored (pre-fire) Torture Cell. Then, I saw the burnt and damaged cell after the fire, then, the restored cell after the fire and it's clone which I think John still has. I am positive this current cell is the one Henry had made to display during John's original restoration. I saw it. I remember it.

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    1. Your comments here further reinforce my conviction that this newly discovered duplicate cell was commissioned by Henry Mueller. Based on what I have read and seen photos of, I would think this duplicate might be a better one than the one John Gaughan made. It seems that prevailing opinion was that when John rebuilt the USD post-fire over a 6 year period, he made it look glitzy and pretty to the extent it looked like a beautiful magic prop. D.C., after he purchased it, took it apart and replaced a lot in order to make it look and be more like it did when Houdini used it. I've read that magicians who saw John's copy next to the one he was rebuilding for Sid Radner post-fire could not tell them apart. So John's copy was glitzy too. This duplicate USD, presumably Henry's, doesn't look as pretty and maybe more closely resembled the original in appearance. It doesn't look as pretty as that polished one we saw at the Las Vegas Auction when Sid Radner sold it to D.C. It might not look as old as the original did but obviously based on the story, someone went to some trouble to use period hardware. Since you are Houdini's Ghost and have seen all of these USD's, is this duplicate more true to the original Sid Radner one than the duplicate John Gaughan made? I'm just curious. Lastly, this Ted Fenton fellow you mentioned earlier, is he still around? Might he be able to substantiate that this newly found duplicate has Henry Mueller behind it?

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  24. I think this Mueller duplicate should be cleaned, polished, spruced up, and used for Houdini exhibitions that travel around the U.S. these days. The USD has a power all it's own, and can convey HH's aura quite well to the public.

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    1. I don't think we should call this the "Mueller duplicate" until we know that's what it is. That's just one of the theories. I'm calling it the "Canadian mystery cell".

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    2. I could swear I read you thanking Culliton for cracking the mystery. I guess decided to step back for the moment. ;)

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    3. I thought maybe you read that and misunderstood, so I deleted. I said he MIGHT have cracked the mystery. But I still don't think we have anything conclusive enough to close the door on other possibilities.

      A pic of Henry presenting Sid with that cell in which I could see the unique locking plate would be very good.

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    4. It's possible Henry had the duplicate built behind Sid's back just in case Radner decided to pull the USD out of the museum. If that's the case, the photo of Henry with Sid and the duplicate cell wouldn't exist.

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    5. People say Henry presented Sid with the cell at a magic convention. (Although years ago someone told me it was John Gaughan who gave Sid the cell at the convention.) A pic of that is what I'm talking about.

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    6. Okay--so Sid knew about this cell? I wonder if he ever mentioned its provenance in an interview.

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    7. Sid would not have talked about it publicly as he did not want any duplicates made. He feared they would devalue his cell. He and John Gaughan had a huge brouhaha over this. Click the related link above: "The Mystery of the Two Torture Cells."

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  25. I believe someone intentionally attempted to make this look older than it actually is. That dusty glass in not dust from age, it's sand thrown on the glass and then wiped away. There's other signs as well.

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  26. IF Henry Muller had this USD made for a time when Sid Radner pulled the original one out of the museum, then it seems like it never got used. Only if it were made prior to 1990 might it have been on display while the real USD was being restored by John Gaughan. I wonder when the original went to John Gaughan for that restoration? I know the work was completed in November 1991 but when did the original USD leave the museum? Is there anyone who went to the museum AFTER the original USD was gone and still saw a cell there? Photos? Just wondering as this would be the only evidence we have that this duplicate cell stood in place of the real one while the real one was being restored. We know the museum never opened again after the fire in 1995 so the duplicate, if Henry had it made, would have nowhere to go. Any photos out here that might help???

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  27. I second James' call for any and all photos of the cell at all times. I would especially like to see a pic of the repro cell Pat is talking about -- the one Henry gave to Sid at the convention. Certainly folks took pics there? If we could match that cell to this one (the hinge on the locking hasp) we could solve this mystery.

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  28. A very good friend of mine was the original curator of the museum in Niagara Falls. I sent him your article and his reply:

    "Definitely not the original. The wood and metal compositions are not right. Quick glance at the picture and you would say "maybe" but up close (as close as you could get from expanding a picture), definitely not."

    He loved the story though.

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    1. Thanks Peter. Yeah, the idea that this could somehow be the original is way off the table for me.

      Did this gentleman have any recollection of Henry Muller creating a replica?

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  29. Replies
    1. Was your friend the curator during 2 critical times? 1) During the time the original Radner USD was being restored by John Gaughan in 1991 and 2) During the time frame after the restoration by John Gaughan was completed and the USD had returned, probably 1992 or so. It was there until the fire on 4/30/1995. If your friend was there, what does he remember seeing at those times. At time 1 period, was there a USD in place while the original was gone? What did it look like? At time period 2, what did the restored cell look like when it returned? Did it look like that photo on the cover of November 1991 MAGIC magazine? Photos are needed. If we torture the data long enough it will confess!

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  30. I was at the Magic Castle the other night and it seemed everyone was asking me about this. Certainly has caused a stir. Unfortunately, no new developments.

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  31. Happy to finally be able to share the identity of the owners HERE.

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  32. The question would be WHO SOLD IT to them..interesting they are not mentioned or no import documents are shown. The create it came in look brand new with no padding?? No address labels?? no custom documents?? (USA to CANADA) Going through the other torture cells "He" built doesn't the other "Houdini" cell's wood look EXACTLY the same. Anyone can find 100 year old wood

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  33. Hello Anonymous. I really appreciate your tenacity in trying to flush this mystery out. The seller asked to keep his privacy and although we aren't completely sure why we will honour that request.

    The word is 'crate' not 'create'.

    Of course the crate is new. It was not intended to be a road case type crate and it is not part of the mystery WTC. The Cell was wrapped in moving blankets and stretch wrapped.

    The address labels are on the outside, not the inside. That's why you don't see see any labels in the pictures. There are no US/CAN customs because it was shipped within Canada (pay attention).

    If you are alluding to the fact that I built this then thank you but I have never seen the underneath of the Cell and I don't know if that is how it looks.

    The wood is very different between the two Cell's. I can't seem to post pictures in this comment but if you look at the interior of the two Cell's you will see quite a difference.

    The mystery Cell sure looks more authentic than David Copperfield's shell of a shell in his museum.

    If you ever want to come up and see it let me know.

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    1. Hi Richard, Any updates on the cell at this point? Thanks, Ron

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  34. The handles are the real puzzle. If one was going to fake this prop, one would need access to the original WTC to get a mould off the handles to get them recast, which would be very expensive. They are certainly not a standard handle that can be bought here in the U.K.

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  35. Richard Sherry posted on his Facebook today that he's discovered a 1909 British coin inside one of the locks used as a shim. This just gets more and more curious...

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  36. Hi John, Any updates on the cell? Thanks,

    Ron

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    1. Nope. Last update was the coin discovery. (My last comment above yours.)

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  37. I have a strange feeling that the cell is legit. If you look at the markings on the left side of the frame around the front glass. Between the 6 and seventh frame bolt starting from the bottom the marking are in the same location as the ones in the museum before it was restored.

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