“You’ll like this”, millionaire magician Paul Daniels (1938-2016) used to tell audiences. “Not a lot, but you’ll like it.”
When his collection of magic show posters, books, letters and elaborate apparatus for his tricks which wowed TV viewers and theatregoers in the 1970s-90s was offered at Special Auction Services (25% buyer’s premium) the audience overwhelmingly comprised British and US magicians, professional and amateur.
They liked it to the extent that all bar 19 of the 771 lots sold to a hammer total of £126,000.
Topping the bill on Day 1 of the November 24-25 Newbury sale was the Victorian double act Maskelyne & Cooke.
A poster depicting their Lady Floating In The Air and listing other amazing feats was dated 1873, probably just a few months before John Maskelyne and George Cooke cemented their place in the magicians’ hall of fame by starting their residency at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly which lasted until 1905.
The 17 x 11in (44 x 28cm) poster, autographed by Daniels to the reverse, had some minor tears and infill but was in overall good condition. Against an estimate of £150-200, it went to a British magic show producer – who flew in from the US to be at the sale, but possibly not by floating in the air – at £4400.
Maskelyne & Cooke’s contemporary, Chung Ling Soo, was an extraordinary man in both life and the manner of leaving it.
In truth he was William Ellsworth Robinson (1861-1918) a white American in perfect health. But he maintained a stage persona as a disabled Chinese man. With two assistants helping him offstage he could more easily hide ‘vanished’ items such as a bowl full of fish between his legs under his robes.
Chung Ling Soo was famous on two continents, sometimes working alongside Harry Houdini. And, like Houdini, one of his famous acts killed him. He was shot dead on stage at the Wood Green Alhambra in London in 1918 when performing his climax illusion of catching a bullet in his teeth. US magician David Copperfield owns one of the rifles used in the act.
At SAS all but one of the 14 single posters featuring Soo got away, totalling £22,600 against top expectations of £16,500.
The best-sellers, both printed by James Upton, Birmingham and conservation-paper backed, dated from c.1908-1915.
One portrayed The Marvelous Chinese Conjurer carrying a lantern and was subtitled The Light of the World. The 14½in x 2ft 6in (37 x 76cm) poster had old fold lines, small tears to the rim and pencil marks but was in overall good condition and estimated at £600-800. It went to a Belgian bidder at £2200.
The other was a scarce landscape-format poster depicting Soo performing while watched by an assistant. In similar condition and guided at £1000-1500. the 20 x 30in (50 x 76cm) poster also made £2200, selling to a Hampshire enthusiast.
Most of the 389 poster lots, sometimes multiples, were mid-20th century and sold to collectors in two or low three figures, albeit usually above estimates.
Tricks of his trade
The props for the tricks Daniels performed in his TV and stage heyday of the 1970s-90s met a more mixed reception.
The favourite prop of Daniels’ widow, his longtime stage assistant Debbie McGee who consigned the collection, was the Geometrix Illusion cabinet. It came with the swords which appeared to pierce her body. Built round McGee’s body and different from the more commercial sword boxes, it led the second day despite selling below estimate at £5500.
Another such box in which she would stand, her head on view out of the top while her body appeared to be pierced by a dozen swords, sold within estimate at £3400 and two of Daniels’ hooded ‘transposition’ cloaks and an acrylic Greek tragedy mask went above top hopes at £2500.
The levitating bed and costumes for Daniels’ famous Phantom of the Opera sequence failed to get away against hopes of £10,000-15,000.
Given that Daniels liked to give his audiences a laugh and close with a surprise he would probably have enjoyed the reaction to the last lot of the sale. Catalogued baldly as ‘Ephemera. Paul Daniels’ toupee’, it was estimated at £200-300 and sold at £2100 to a props company as a display piece.