Saturday, January 30, 2021

Set of Houdini printing blocks sell (quickly!) on eBay

On Monday there was some excitement on eBay when six original Houdini wood printing blocks appeared from a seller in Florida with relatively low Buy It Now prices (which quickly shot up as they started selling fast!). When the dust settled, I was thrilled to come away with the below.


Wood blocks like these were used in the printing of newspapers and other print media and can be one of a kind. The seller says she found the entire set at an estate sale of a 90+ year-old man. Three of the blocks are etched plates like the above and three are photos on copper. The largest of these is the well-known "Houdini at Different Ages of His Career" page from his pitchbook. Below are the auction images.


While I recognize all these blocks from their newspaper appearances, my own block is a bit of a mystery. While I suspect it was also used in newspapers, the only image I've found so far is the below print in the McCord Museum. Is this the original drawing from which this block was made? You'll notice it has the artist signature. Unfortunately, I can't make it out. [See UPDATES.]

McCord Museum

I would love to more more about printing blocks in general. Were they all one of a kind? How did newspapers acquire them? Would Houdini have provided them himself? If you have any answers, please let me know in the Comments.

Thanks to Todd Karr of The Miracle Factory for giving me the heads up on these!

UPDATE: Chuck Romano of My Magic Uncle tells me the artist here appears to be Howard K. Elcock, an English pen and ink illustrator who did a lot of artwork for Will Goldston's publications. The following is from The Magazine of Magic, February 1915:


UPDATE: Another development. I've just discovered this illustration appears in the "Revised 1920" edition of Houdini's The Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist pitchbook (below). Curiously, the illustration is not in the later "Revised 1922" edition. Instead, the original photograph appears in its place. Maybe he lost the block!


UPDATE: I've now learned these plates came out of the famous 1980 278 estate sale. Also, what the seller told me about these coming from the estate of a 90+ year old man may not be accurate.

18 comments:

  1. Most likely the newspapers made these.

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    1. Would a newspaper really go to all that trouble for single advertisement? And these appeared in several different newspapers in different cites across several years. I feel like these would have been supplied to the newspaper like a press kit. And then retrieved and brought to the next city and newspaper.

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  2. From what I can see the artist was Howard K. Elcock. He is one of my favorite pen and ink artists. Elcock, an Englishman, did a lot of artwork for Will Goldston's publications. Houdini liked his work and thought he was a very talented artist.

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    1. Oh, cool, thanks Chuck! It is a fantastic image.

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    2. Elcock did Houdini posters as well, didn't he? I believe David Copperfield has a display devoted to the Elcock in the Houdini area of his museum.

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    3. Yes, Elcock did the artwork for the "Giant Vault of Sand" Buried Alive Stunt and the beautiful "Overboard Box" poster.

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  3. So that last remaining block that I linked to in the story has sold (and I've removed the link). If it was someone here who got it, let me know and I can provide you with the ad on which it appeared! It's a unique one!

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  4. I saw these "printing blocks for sale and thought about purchasing it but I felt it would be messy using the black ink to "tamp" the images. Also, if I didn't use them as a "stamp" it would be sitting on a shelf not functioning for what they were intended to be used for: Printing images in Newspapers or for publicity posters. Mazel Tov! I'm happy that YOU own them now. Congratulations and all my best to you🤗Benjilini🎩🐰😷

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    1. To be clear, I only just got this one. They were all sold individually.

      I won't be inking and using mine. The etching is very fine and I don't think I even know how to do it right. And I don't want to get ink on the wood. But Jim Klodzen, who got the Gayety Theater one (click top related link to see that ad), collects printing blocks in general and knows what he's doing, so he is going to ink his.

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  5. Congrats John on your acquisition. I absolutely love it. Besides the print in the McCord Museum, I knew I had seen that illustration somewhere else. Last year, I added the extremely rare 1920 edition of The Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist pitchbook to my collection. Thanks for jogging my memory. BTW: Chuck Romano is correct. The artist is definitely H.K. Elcock. You can see a pen-and-ink portrait of Houdini by Elcock with the same signature on the cover of Yar, The Primeval Man.

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    1. You have one of the 1920 pitchbooks? That is fantastic. I'm assuming these were printed exclusively for his UK tour that year. And was this the first time he used the "Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist" title?

      I never noticed Elcock did the Primeval Man cover. That's a great portrait. I can see why Houdini liked him.

      Can we assume Elcock did the illustrations for Magical Rope Ties and Escapes as well? I just checked and no illustrator is credited. Unless I missed it.

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    2. Although he did a lot of artwork for Will Goldston's publications, not sure we can assume Elcock did the illustrations for Magical Rope Ties and Escapes. But the answer to all of your other questions is Yes.

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    3. Nope, we can't assume it. But, man, does it make sense.

      Didn't some original Ropes Ties artwork sell at auction recently? I have some recollection of that.

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  6. Just learned these blocks came out of the famous 1980 278 estate sale.

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    1. That's interesting. The Jersey ad for the auction lists printing plates among a huge array of items so, it makes sense. Dick and Dorothy acquired the framed photos of Houdini's parents from that auction.

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    2. And recall they also have a printers block (the one that mysteriously fell over during their seance). Maybe they got that at the same time? These all appear to have been Houdini's.

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    3. Yep--HH must have kept the blocks in case he needed them for an ad. Good catch on the D & D seance incident!

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  7. All of these are amazing and I think yours is the best of them all-congratulations! You must be over the moon!

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