CHICAGO – More than 85 years after his death, we cannot escape Harry Houdini.
On the eve of a new History Channel mini-series about the great illusionist and escape artist, a Chicago auction house is holding a Houdini event that’s, well, magical.
“I think this is probably the most important Houdini auction in several years,” says John Cox, a Houdini researcher and enthusiast for more than 40 years who produces the Wild About Harry blog (wildabouthoudini.com). “There’s really some important items – not just the things he used on stage, the props, but just some of the documents, things that have never been seen by historians. This has a depth I haven’t seen in a long, long time.”
The auction is set for Aug. 23 at Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago. Auction lots will be on display Aug. 20-22.
Potter & Potter President Gabe Fajuri expects a lot of interest. “We’ll have hundreds of people bidding online, people bidding on the phone. As soon as I put the catalog on line we started getting inquiries.”
Born Erik Weisz in Hungary in 1874, Houdini was performing by age 9 and went on to worldwide fame for his crowd-dazzling performances and, later, his crusade against phony spiritualists. He died in 1926 – on Halloween, no less. Generations later, he still resonates in popular culture, as evidenced by the History Channel mini-series Sept. 1 and 2, starring Adrien Brody.
“It’s really amazing,” Cox says. “If I had a Lady Gaga blog, it wouldn’t be this busy. I’m overwhelmed by what’s going on. He seems to be gaining in strength. The name ‘Houdini’ embodies mystery. ... He’s been rooted in our language. Every day there’s a reference to an athlete or politician doing a Houdini. So that keeps him in the popular conversation.”
Some of the auction items, while rare, will not be particularly amazing to longtime Houdini collectors. Houdini-owned handcuffs – and there are three pairs being offered – do come to market regularly. The same with postcards, signed copies of his books and letters.
“A couple of these (handcuffs) came out of the basement of his house in New York in 1980, ‘81,” Fajuri says. “The owners were cleaning out the basement and found trunks of stuff.”
But other pieces, such as the Double Fold Death Defying Water Mystery box (Lot 39), are one-of-a-kind jaw-droppers.
The circa-1909 wooden box, approximately 29-by-29-by-38 inches, has four locks built into the top. A large milk can was placed in the box and filled with water. The performer stepped into the milk can and was submerged as its lid was locked in place. The top of the wooden box was then locked down, and for good measure quadruple-padlocked. A curtain was set up around the box, and a short time later the performer stepped out, wet and breathless but safe.
“I’d only heard talk that (the box) existed. Only rumors,” Cox says. “I wondered if I’d ever see it. It’s a very important piece of Houdini apparatus. And the craftsmanship. I think that’s going to be the obvious star of the auction.”
The box comes with a brochure touting Houdini’s younger brother, Theodore, who performed under the name Hardeen. The brochure shows the box and has a handwritten note from Hardeen: “This is the box escape. How would you like to do it? Not another in the world.”
Another treasure is an archive of documents from Houdini’s 1902 trial charging slander in Germany. He sued a police official who called him a fraud, as well as the newspaper editor who published the claim. Houdini prevailed, and Lot 60, dubbed the “Cologne Papers,” details the case with a 50-page handwritten trial transcript, telegrams and other documents.
“That is something I learned existed only in the last year or so,” Cox says. “I don’t think it has been examined by historians. It’s usually given some attention in biographies, but the details aren’t that real well known. It looks like Houdini put together this folio, all the information on it, and it’s a great piece of history.”
So is a scrapbook on spiritualism kept by Houdini that surfaced last year.
“The (consigner) won’t tell me exactly where,” Fajuri says. “He said he found it at an outdoor sale in California. He took it to a guy who is pretty knowledgeable about Houdini, and holy smokes.”
The scrapbook is 125 pages of headlines, news clippings, notes and handbills, and is dotted with comments written by Houdini in the margins, as was his habit.
There are 286 items in the auction, 204 of them with ties to Houdini.
Included is an unpublished Houdini manuscript on witchcraft, replete with hundreds of his edits; photographs and glass negatives, many unpublished; letters and documents; posters and other ephemera related to Houdini and Hardeen. There’s even an embroidered coat worn by Beatrice Houdini, Harry’s wife, on stage.
“It’s interesting to see him in a photo with Jack London,” Fajuri says of another item. “He had an affair with London’s wife (after London’s death).”
The collection, taken as a whole, helps explain why Houdini was such a star. Adds Fajuri: “It doesn’t hurt that you were a magician who died on Halloween, or that your wife held seances for a decade after you died trying to contact you, or that you were doing (tricks) no one else was doing.”