houdini_post0002The title of this blog is The Ephemeral Collector, and in my “About” page I set out that I collect ephemeral material related to the art of magic. If you have been following this blog, you may have noticed that my recent posts were on apparatus, on posters and on more substantial items – not really on “ephemeral” objects. Sometimes, to really appreciate a small piece of paper, what I consider an “ephemeral magic object,” one has to study and investigate its story: sometimes, the discoveries will bring amazement and the ephemeral object will be seen in a different light, a small part of a larger puzzle.

Sit comfortable, dear reader, and let me tell you the story of an unused invitation to meet the master of the masters in his prime, the one and only Harry Houdini.

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Posters advertising Chung Ling Soo's performance at The Palace (Bristol, UK), circa 1910.

Posters advertising Chung Ling Soo‘s performance at The Palace (Bristol, UK), circa 1910.

Before the times of the internet, radio and television, advertisement was done with the help of what we call “posters,” placards and bills that were posted on walls to inform the passer-by of events or products. Theatre shows, plays and indeed also magic shows were thus advertised. Most of the posters before 1870 were textual or just printed with black ink: it was with the perfection of colour lithography that economical, mass production of colour posters became available. Between posters advertising products or political ideas, those relating to entertainment were a common fixture on city walls and every theatre printed posters weekly to try to entice the paying public to the show.

Magicians, especially travelling ones, had been using posters for generations: many travelled with their own printing blocks and had new posters created in every city where they managed to give one or more performances. With the advent of lithography, magicians started to make good use of the technology to produce colourful images, with which to plaster walls, as it can be seen in the photo above, announcing a week’s performance of (fake) Chinese magician Chung Ling Soo in Bristol, showing 31 different pictorial posters (and two with the week’s “bill” at the theatre). These were only a small part of the posters used by Chung Ling Soo…

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cl017-james-bond-bracesA good magician is a keeper of secrets. Secrets are at the base of magic: it is only because the magician knows the secrets behind his tricks that he can fool you. A good magic trick contains many different layers of secrets: there may be the mechanical secret that operates a box; the hidden sleight of nimble fingers that causes cards to fly from the pack; the psychological secrets that cause the audience to look in a different place just when the “secret” maneuver happens. All these elements must be coordinated to ensure the magic trick is successful.

Magicians are not the only keepers of secrets: since antiquity the practice to hide information of knowledge from another party has been used by governments, groups of people and individual to both protect themselves and to get some kind of advantage over another party. Espionage is documented to ancient civilizations and what is not often known is that some spies had a public or, more often, private attraction to the Art of Magic. I have already mentioned Hieronimo Scoto as a spy for the Duke of Parma in the European courts of the XVI century, but only recently I acquired an unknown magic manuscript of a modern spy…

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Issue 49 cover smallA few weeks ago, I received an email from Mark Leveridge, the editor of MagicSeen, a magic magazine for the younger and cooler side of the magic profession. Mark wanted to publish an article about magic collecting and, having found my blog interesting, decided to interview myself and Fergus Roy, the noted collector, organizer of magic collecting events, scholar, magic historian and part of the well-known Davenport family, on why magic collecting is important. Read the rest of this entry »

Conchito_PosterWorld War II had, as it is well known, a huge impact on Europe, on its geography, on its political ideas, on the relations between different countries. And it also had a large impact on magic. When the war ended, in 1945, diffidence and mistrust was rife in all European countries. One of the few exceptions was in the world of magic: magicians are a friendly group, looking for contacts, friendship, novelties from other lovers of the art, anywhere in the world. While Europe was busy rebuilding trades, houses and families, a group of magicians from different countries made a significant step towards the reunion of magic lovers: the first international (actually, pan-European) magic convention. In 1946, three-hundred magicians from all around Europe descended to Amsterdam, Holland, for the first magic meeting after the war.

The following year, the event was repeated in Paris, France, with the attendance of more than five-hundred conjurers from Europe and abroad, and the base was set for the creation of FISM, the International Federation of Magic Societies that, since then, has been organizing regular conventions and, especially, the most prestigious magic competition in the World, which every three years crowns the best magician in the world. While in recent years the number of competitors has swelled, in 1947 only 70 magicians competed for a handful of prizes in only three categories: some competitors were also performing in the gala shows for the attendees! One of the categories was “Presentation” which was to recognize the most original performers of classic magic tricks. The first prize winner was Englishman Willane (William H. Lane), a popular author of magic books for the fraternity. The winner of the third prize was an obscure Dutch magician, a popular illusionist in Holland in the years after the war, and the subject of this story: Conchito.

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Linga Singh – the Indian Conjurer

Every collector of antique memorabilia has a dream, a single dream common to all those whose passion for a subject has turned into an obsession: the dream is to find a large amount of material that has lied untouched and forgotten for years. It doesn’t matter what the subject of your collection is: cars, photographs, stamps, old masters’ paintings, magic tricks… every collector daydreams about finding a dark attic, a barn, a cellar, filled with unheard-of treasures, dusty but potentially unique.

There are many stories of finds just like that: a couple of years ago, in a barn in the town where I live, was discovered a fleet of luxury cars which hadn’t seen the light of day in twenty years (this is not the hoax of the fleet of cars in Portugal, which, while existing, has not actually been “found”). Magicians are well aware of how the show of Charles Carter re-surfaced after forty years in a barn, or how a large collection of magic posters was recently found in a downtown attic, including a rare Houdini poster.

However, this is for most collectors just a dream. For most collectors, indeed. But sometimes, just some times, dreams may come true…

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Collecting magic memorabilia and ephemera is a strange but pleasant hobby and there are so many ways to approach this pastime. Many collectors specialize in a subject, or a range of collectibles, be them posters, memorabilia of some magician, more or less known, magic tricks made in wood or metal, or made by a selected number of manufacturers; still more seem to accumulate all sort of antique (or not-so-antique) magic paraphernalia they may happen to find…

While I specialize in collecting memorabilia pertaining to Raffaele Chefalo – as I have already written more than once – I also like to add to my modest collection some unusual items, the stuff that you don’t often see. Only recently, I come across an unusual poster, of a forgotten illusionist, somebody whose image I had never seen, showing an illusion of which I was aware, which I remember seeing performed in the 1970′s – 1980′s.

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Bartolomeo Bosco (1793 - 1863)

Bartolomeo Bosco (1793 – 1863)

It is thanks to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin that the name of Bartolomeo Bosco and his artistic legacy has come down to us, that we know his repertoire and that we are aware of his importance and of his popularity. It is also from Robert-Houdin that we learn that Bosco was a murderer, committing every night one or more assassinations in front of the eyes of a paying audience, without ever having to justify his actions. In addition to his powerful and exceedingly skilled hands, a sword was his favourite instrument, and it is this sword, now in front of me, that I want to discuss today…

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Time is an ephemeral concept: by the time we have realized what it is, it is gone. When you will have finished reading this phrase, your time will already be gone, this exact moment will be in the past. Time can be measured: past can be just a few seconds ago, or it may be some centuries ago. As collectors, we are keepers of time, holding, in the present and – hopefully – preserving for the future, items and memories of a time long gone. Magic is a performing art, it exists only when someone performs a magic act for others to enjoy: magic itself cannot be preserved and, once the magic performance is finished, magic is already in the past, leaving just a memory but, sometimes, an ephemeral item too.

In my previous posts, I have been discussing about a past that is not so far, being only slightly more than one hundred years ago. In this post, I would like to go way back, presenting what – at the moment – is the oldest item in my small collection: the medal with the image of Girolamo Scoto, the first magician whose effigy is known to us…

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Who are these three magicians? Click to enlarge or read the post!

What do Bartolomeo Bosco, Ludwig Döbler and Louis Comte have in common? Well, they were the three greatest European magicians in the first part of the XIX century, exceedingly popular in central Europe and a source of respect and admiration for their skills and their understanding of magic. In my case, they are also the subjects of a rare piece of memorabilia displayed on my stairwell.

The photo at the side shows three small framed pictures (7″x9″ – 18×23 cm) of these three magicians and the rest of the article will give an idea of their importance in the history of Magic and of the scarcity of these objects for collectors.

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