Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2021 Issue

Do you believe in Magic Again?

Do you believe in Magic?


If you are of a certain age you will remember when book auctions were mostly books but now-a-days we are living in the world of collectable paper and collectibles generally and their underlying stories make the difference and raises the prices.  A case in point is material collected by Ricky Jay, the noted book collector, actor and magician.  For Sotheby’s, Mr. Jay’s recent sale was the opportunity to share their excitement and enthusiasm about how his material was recently received; V E R Y  W E L L  thank you.


Categories of collectors and collections can be divided between the turgid and sublime.  The vast majority of collecting focuses are interesting and understandable.  And then there have been Ricky Jay’s auctions and they have noticeably been celebrations of Mr. Jay’s acuity and judgement.  Even, after Mr. Jay has passed away, he is still talking to us as we have been reading his catalogues and browsing his upcoming auction lots.


And the outcome?  On the recent 28th, 600 of his lots were sold to 300+ bidders, hailing from a dozen countries.  Against the cumulative high estimate of all his lots, $3.2 million, bidders won 94% of the lots and paid $3.8 million.


As to what made the headlines.  Here is how Sotheby’s explains it:


Ricky Jay’s Bespoke Automaton, Neppy

Soars to $201,600

*World Auction Record for a Contemporary Automaton*

*More than 13 Times its $15,000 High Estimate*


Poster of Harry Houdini Upside Down in The Water Torture Cell Reaches $151,200

*World Auction Record for a Magic Poster*

*More than Double $60,000 High Estimate*


Institutions and Private Collectors Compete for Mr. Jay’s Collection Spanning the History of Magic, Popular Entertainment, Esoterica & More


From The Legendary Collection Of Ricky Jay, Internationally Renowned Sleight Of Hand Artist, Noted Author, Historian, Actor, Entertainer And Chronicler Of The Unusual


NEW YORK, 28 October 2021 – Highlighted by nearly 600 works sold, 300+ bidders across 12 countries, and two auction records, Sotheby’s marathon two-day auction of the Ricky Jay Collection concluded this afternoon in New York, achieving an exceptional $3.8 million – far exceeding its $3.2 million high estimate, with an impressive 94% of all 633 lots sold.


The collection of objects spanning the history of magic illusionism, popular entertainments, and other curiosities was on offer from the extensive collection of Ricky Jay – author, historian, entertainer, and one of the world’s greatest sleight of hand artists. Separate release available



  • · 94% sold by lot

  • · Strong institutional bidding throughout the sale

  • · 62% of bidders new to Sotheby’s

  • · Two Auction Records Set:

o   Ricky Jay’s bespoke automaton, Neppy, soared to $201,600 – a world auction record for a contemporary automaton

o   A poster of Harry Houdini Upside Down in The Water Torture Cell achieved $151,200 – a world auction record for a magic poster

  • · Many lots sold for multiples above estimate, including:

o   Sarah Beffin’s Study of Three Feathers, a charming rendering of feathers from the accomplished armless artist, reached $21,420 – more than 21 times its $1,000 high estimate

o   A first edition, presentation copy of Harry Houdini’s The Unmasking of Robert Houdin, sold for $25,200 – more than 12 times its $2,000 high estimate




Ricky Jay’s bespoke automaton, Neppy, soared to $201,600 – a world auction record for a contemporary automaton. Neppy was a veteran of hundreds of performances around the world in the stage show Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants. Constructed by Alan wakeling, Neppy was named for Viennese card artist Dr. Johan Nepomuk Hofzinger. He was designed to perform a silent routine with Ricky Jay, in which a card would be torn, handed to various members of the audience, collected, and then restored by Neppy. 




An impressive group of items from and about magic’s greatest celebrity, Harry Houdini, was led by a poster of Harry Houdini Upside Down in The Water Torture Cell – the most famous, dangerous, and dramatic of all of Houdini’s escapes – which reached $151,200 – more than double its $60,000 high estimate and marking a world auction record for a magic poster. Considered one of the most significant posters of Houdini, this beautiful and very rare poster effectively conveys Houdini's expression of concern. "Magicians' posters are usually guilty of exaggeration. But here Houdini used a stark image to emphasize the simple drama of his famous Water Torture Cell. Instead of picturing the tank of water, the locks and hasps, Houdini's face told the entire story. Each performance was a life-or-death melodrama" (Magic).


Other posters by Harry Houdini sold exceptionally well and above their high estimates, including Houdini again encounters the German police, which achieved $69,300 (estimate $25/35,000), and Houdini’s Newest Sensation: the Water Torture Cell, which reached $52,920 (estimate $10/15,000)


About this news release, the statistics are useful, interesting and seldom released.  Appreciate the clarity.


Rare Book Monthly

  • Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Closing Time, Advance Readers Copy of Uncorrected Proof with a letter from Heller on his personal stationary
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Gates, Bill, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, N Y: Knopf, 2021; first edition, with a handwritten note from Bill Gates
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Catch-22, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961, first edition, first printing, first issue dust jacket, inscribed on the front end paper by Heller
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Something Happened, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, first edition, inscribed on the front end paper by Heller
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, London: John Murray, 1818, in four volumes
  • Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schøyen Collection
    London auction, 11 June
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Holkham Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew, decorated manuscript on vellum [Toledo, 2nd quarter 13th century]. £1,500,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Crosby-Schøyen Codex. In Coptic, manuscript on papyrus [Upper Egypt, middle 3rd century / 4th century]. £2,000,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Geraardsbergen Bible. In Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Southern Netherlands, late 12th century]. £700,000–1,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now : Jean de Courcy (fl. 1420). The Chronique de la Bouquechardiere. In French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1480]. £200,000–300,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The ‘Catherine de Medici’ Hours. In Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1485]. £120,000–180,000
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD

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