Imagine an episode of “Antiques Roadshow” filled with the oddest of oddities – but instead of seeing the items appraised, you can bid to own them.
This Saturday, Oct. 28, a Chicago auction house is offering an astonishing archive of vaudeville posters, sideshow ephemera, and what is called magicana.
Hundreds of rare pieces are up for bidding, including a 12-foot wide banner promoting what unexpectedly became Harry Houdini’s final tour in 1926. Another highlight is the lifelong correspondence of magician Germain the Wizard, spilling all of his trade secrets to a protégé.
There’s a poster of Princess White Deer, a Native American vaudevillian who became an activist and was dubbed the “Susan B. Anthony of American Indians.”
“This is my kind of stuff,” auctioneer Gabe Fajuri of Potter & Potter Auctions told WTTW News. “There’s a whole archive of photos of sideshow people – the Petrified Man, the Bear Lady, the Hairy-Faced Couple, the dog that can answer questions and do card tricks. There’s a lot of things on the circus, and hundreds of early photos of tattooed people.”
There’s also material related to racketeers, including an infamous European grifter: “We have a Wanted poster for a man, a con man, who sold the Eiffel Tower twice.”
The Austrian named Victor Lustig, and he spent his final days at Alcatraz.
All of it was collected by magician Ricky Jay, who died in 2018 at age 72.
If you’re not an aficionado of artful deception, you still might recognize him because Ricky Jay was also a serious character actor. He was a favorite of David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson, and he even played a henchman in the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies.”
And he was an author. His 1986 book “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women” is a classic guide to unique entertainers from a bygone era.
Fajuri said Jay was, “a scholar of the bizarre, the unusual and magic history. Ricky did it all. He wrote the books, did the radio shows, put it into his live performances. Collecting can be pretty covetous, right? ‘My precious!’ and all that, but he really did something with it. A lot of the things in this auction were in books and magazines that he published or subjects of different performances he did.”
Jay’s wife consigned the collection to Potter & Potter Auctions, which had sold a few things to Jay over the years.
“Ricky Jay was my hero when I was 15 years old,” Fajuri said. “I came to Chicago from Detroit to see his show at Steppenwolf. I told my parents ‘I gotta go see this show!’ I idolized the guy.”
Over his lifetime, he amassed a deep stockpile of astounding stuff. This is already the second auction of his treasures by Potter & Potter and a third one is planned. The cover of the latest auction catalog features an image of Jay in the style of a 19th century spirit photograph, with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln looking over his shoulder.
While the auction can be viewed online, it’s also very much a live event.
“We’re happy to have people here in the audience on Saturday,” Fajuri said. “Some things will sell for $10,000 and some things will sell for $200. There are things at every price point.”
The auctioneer hopes the late magician’s uncanny collection of scrapbooks, cabinet cards, mugshots and broadsides will do a quick disappearing act.
The auction of the Ricky Jay Collection, Part II takes places at 10 a.m., Oct. 28 at Potter & Potter Auctions, 5001 W. Belmont Avenue in Chicago.