Ricky Jay, the magician, actor, and collector, is said to have died on November 24, 2018, but, somehow, he gloriously continues to reappear in the auction rooms.
Sotheby’s offered 700 of his lots in 2021, converting his passion into $3.8 million. Then Potter & Potter brought 373 more across the block in its Chicago rooms earlier this year for another million dollars.
Now Potter & Potter is bringing the sleight-of-hand artist back once more for another entertaining and interesting sale. The cover of their newest catalogue, a la “a picture is worth a thousand words,” suggests the relationship between Mr. Jay and the afterlife are one and the same. Here, the evidence takes the form of a spirit photograph showing Mr. Jay and none other than Abraham Lincoln, as captured by Los Angeles-based visual artist Stephen Berkman.
Book collectors have long wished for immortality, but time and declining relevance inevitably dim even the brightest of stars. That said, Mr. Jay seems to be one of the very rare exceptions, whose interests and tastes may define the magic category for the next one hundred years.
Ricky Jay’s life, his story, his movies, his writing and collection, taken together, they are making a fair bid for a place in the history books. No doubt he is watching – somehow, in some clever way – from nearby to see how his treasures are faring.
For this upcoming sale Potter & Potter had the enviable task of sorting through the magician’s 10,000+ item collection to come up with 323 lots and has accomplished the task with no small amount of elan.
Those who collect magic will immediately note their heart beats pounding in their ears. Why? Even three auctions in, Jay’s collection is still overflowing with rarities. Among them are an expansive archive of correspondence between Karl Germain, the artistic magician of the Chautauqua and Lyceum fields (some 500 of his letters make up lot 135, making this one of the largest archives of its type ever brought to market); rare pitchbooks featuring Jay’s idol Max Malini (see lot 211, the only example known); and books inscribed and signed by many of the greats of the modern era to Jay, including several works inscribed by Dai Vernon (302, 303, and 304).
What’s more, the starting bids are welcoming, suggesting $10,000 might secure several pocketsful of his gems. That’s simply part of his magic. (A glance at previous results reveal that it might take more scratch than that, however.)
Mr. Jay’s interest went far beyond conjuring, of course. In fact, he virtually pioneered scholarly interest in the bizarre, the irregular, unexpected, and illogical. The language of the criminal and books defining slang and cant – many good examples are offered in this sale, some dating to the eighteenth century, while others document the “Hash House Lingo” of the twentieth – sharing shelf space in his library alongside works by Bret Harte (see lot 154 – an archive of editions of his anti-racist gambling work, The Heathen Chinee), classic works on cheating at cards and dice, the mechanics behind trick photography, and even the “Art of Wheedling” (see lot 157).
Photographs of tattooed men and women (a massive gathering of some 600 images makes up lot 281), were neatly filed alongside real photo postcards of sideshow attractions, cabinet photographs of Lionel the Lion Faced Boy (lot 67), and snapshots of snake charmers (lot 264).
But no less tantalizing are the full-color lithographs for circuses and variety acts, or the bombastic broadsides advertising curious characters, conjurers, and charlatans alike. There are simply too many intriguing images to point them all out.
On reflection, the material that falls into any one of a number of categories, from the performance and practice of magic (technical manuals, for lack of a better term), to the illustrated works that picture the people who colored so many of the books Mr. Jay himself wrote.
For Potter & Potter the challenge was to convey Mr. Jay’s spirit through his holdings. “Encapsulating his interests in an auction catalog was hard work,” said Gabe Fajuri, president of the firm, and the chief cataloger of the material in the auction. “I strove for a balanced offering that touched on all of the ‘anomalies’ and unusual people and performers that populate Mr. Jay’s books, performances, and broadcasts. In the end, I’m proud of the work our team did, not only in chronicling the objects themselves in the written word, but also in producing two handsome catalogs (so far), that give Ricky Jay’s collection the attention and care it deserves.”
That all comes through in the reading; there is much to prize and pursue. Peppered throughout the auction text is a sense of understanding and a care for the subject matter, and real curation.
And while lot number 320 – the fourth to last object offered in the sale – is by no means the most rare one going across the block on October 28, there is a certain poetry in its makeup that helps describe this sale from Mr. Jay’s storied Wunderkammer. The object, “St. Louis All in a Nutshell” is a walnut husk hinged together with ribbon that holds a giant accordion-pleated photo album of the great buildings constructed for the 1904 fair held in Missouri.
Perhaps that is the best way to consider this sale, too: as one of several soup-to-nuts representations of this legendary collection of the beautiful, the amazing, and the bizarre.
Here’s a link to the start page: https://potterauctions.com/pdf/145_RickyJay_web.pdf