Where History Meets Art - Stories Behind the Stuff

Houdini:  Master of Magic

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”― J.M. BarriePeter Pan

Photo courtesy of Potter & Potter.  

Harry Houdini showed the world how to fly cloaked in chains and shackles.  The magician stunned audiences worldwide with his dare-devil antics.

“The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death.”
— Houdini

His world was about possibilities.

Houdini had a fascination with death and flirted with it constantly in his escape acts.  He coaxed crowds to vicariously join him in that gamble.  With hearts pounding--they did. 

That's magic.

Houdini's "Double-fold Death Defying Water Mystery" was a show-stopper.  The bulky wooden crate had four heavy locks built into the lid lock along with hasps for four more padlocks.

During the performance a large metal milk can filled with water was lowered into the crate.  The performer stepped into the can and the lid was sealed.  Next the padlocks on the crate were locked.  Then a cloth cabinet was drawn around the crate.  Like a bank vault, it seemed impossible to penetrate. 

After what seemed like too long, the front curtain was pulled aside and there stood the magiciansoaked in water and sweat.  Houdini devised the apparatus after his Milk Can escape. 

"The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death," Houdini said.

Always walking right up to the edge of the cliff and teetering over.  Always looking for ways to raise the stakes.  That was Houdini.  His main goal he said was to conquer fear.   

Shackled in handcuffs, leg irons, chains, ropes and locks, nothing seemed to stop the magician. 

Madness also fascinated Houdini.  It wasn't enough to be strapped inside a strait-jacket or punishment suit a few times a week.  He visited insane asylums on occasion and feared ending up there himself.  Houdini drew up a testament directing his money to be divided between his wife Bess and his brother Hardeen should he suffer any "sickness which may hurt my mind."

This picture emerges of a pretty edgy guy always testing the limits.  He turned magic into high art with his energy and it showed up on stage. 

"I make the most money," Houdini said, "in Russia and Paris, for the people in those countries are so willing to be amused, so eager to see something new and out of the ordinary."  

Maybe they hadn't lost their child-like sense of wonder, still open to the possibilities.

When Houdini died most of his magic apparatus and escape devices went to his brother who spent 18 years gifting and selling the items to magicians and collectors. 

On Aug. 23, Potter & Potter Auctions, Chicago, featured its Houdiniana auction.  Here are some current values for Houdini memorabilia.

Houdini

Photograph; a young seated Houdini dressed in coat and tie with white dog; in cabinet card format; 3 1/4 inches by 6 3/4 inches;  $3,840.

Photograph; full-length portrait; a young Houdini chained and shackled; wearing only a loincloth; circa 1902; 3 1/4 inches by 6 3/4 inches;  $4,800. 

Color Lithograph Poster; Buried Alive!  escape from a coffin buried under the earth; a stunt Houdini would never perform; Otis Litho; circa 1924; eight-sheet, 86 inches by 109 inches;  $9,600.

Color Lithograph Poster; Harry Houdini King of Cards; Chicago, National Printing and Engraving; circa 1898; half-sheet; 19 3/4 inches by 27 3/4 inches;  $20,400.

Double-Fold Death Defying Water Mystery Trick; heavy imposing wooden crate with trapezoidal lid; copied by other magicians trading on Houdini's fame and reputation; American; circa 1909; 29 1/4 inches by 38 1/2 inches;  $66,000.    

 

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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