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Adolph Friedländer's 1920 illustrated poster of magician Franz Diete's "Ghost Rider" performance (all images courtesy Sotheby's)

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In public memory, the late magician Ricky Jay is remembered as a sleight of hand virtuoso who could perform marvels with a deck of cards. His work is eternalized in numerous TV and film appearances, which often included shooting cards like darts at various objects, most famously a halved watermelon. But the legendary performer, who passed away in 2018, was also a renowned magic scholar who authored 11 books and amassed a collection of about 10,000 rare books, posters, and artwork about all things esoteric. On October 27, a portion of his vast collection will go on an auction at Sotheby’s, offering his fans a chance to hold possession of these enchanting items.

Ricky Jay (photo by Jesse Dylan for Sotheby’s )

The sale includes 634 lots of antique books, broadsides, handbills, and prints documenting centuries of magic, circuses, and more. Among the more eccentric items are several 17th-century broadsides advertising “learned animals,” like an “accomplished horse” who could speak English, French, and Italian and a card-playing pig. Harry Houdini, the master of escape acts, features prominently in the collection with 1913-1915 posters promoting his “Water Torture Cell” stunt. Another poster from 1913, beautifully illustrated by famed German lithographer Adolph Friedländer, features a stock levitation image for magicians to use on the road.

More standouts include a late 19th-century charming tabletop game featuring a moving trapeze artist and an “automaton,” a mechanical doll with which Jay appeared on stage. And we would be remiss leave out an 1818 etching of Madame Giradelli, also known as the “celebrated fireproof woman,” who was famous for “passing a lighted candle under her arms, dropping sealing wax on her tongue, and cooking eggs ‘fit for eating’ while holding boiling oil in her hands,” Sotheby’s quotes from Jay’s writings.

Get a taste of this rare and fascinating collection of curiosities in the following selection of images.

 Adolph Friedländer’s stock levitation illusion poster (1913)
Madame Giradelli, the “Celebrated Fire Proof Female” (London: W. Fores, 1818)
One of Erik Weisz’s Harry Houdini posters (1913–1915)
Ricky Jay’s bespoke automaton
“The Universal Conjurer” (1829), an advertisement promoting the magic acts of Famous Breslaw, Katterfelto, Jonas, Flockton, Comas, and the “Greatest Adepts” in London and Paris
Leotard, the Acrobat Sand Toy (Brown, Blondin, & Co., London, circa 1890s) 
 Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Fall of the Magician Hermogenes” (1565)
“The World’s Greatest Psychic Sensation Samri S. and Miss Baldwin in Oriental Hypnotic Dream Visions,” The White Mahatmas (Hartford: Calhoun Print, circa 1895)

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

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