Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2023 Issue

Potter & Potter Brings the Swami back on October 28th

A window on a great collector's collection

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

Rare Book Monthly

  • Gonnelli:
    Auction 50
    Books, Autographs & Manuscripts
    March 6th-7th 2024
    Gonnelli: Cramer, [Picasso, Chagall , Miró], Trente ans d'activité. Starting price 4800€
    Gonnelli: Futurism
    Gonnelli: Avienus, Opera. 1488. Starting price 1200€
    Gonnelli: Vimont, Relation de ce qui s'est passé en la Nouvelle France, en l'année 1642. Starting price 5000€
    Gonnelli: Goedart, Metamorphosis et historia naturalis insectorum. 1662.
    Gonnelli: Il Petrarcha con la spositione di M. Giovanni Andrea Gesualdo.
    Gonnelli: Poblacion, De usu astrolabi compendium.
  • Toronto Book Auctions
    March 6, 2024
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [ART BOOK MONOGRAPH] DAVID BURLIUK WITH ORIGINAL DRAWING and Signed twice. David Burliuk Rare ACA Gallery exhibition catalogue, undated. CA$400 – 800
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [ART BOOK MONOGRAPH] KAWS: COMPANIONSHIP IN THE AGE OF LONELINESS. Text by Margaret Atwood. National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, 2019. $CA400 - 800
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [ART BOOK MONOGRAPH] LAWRENCE WEINER: POSTERS. Nova Scotia College of Art, Canada,1987. CA$800 – 1,200
    Toronto Book Auctions
    March 6, 2024
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: WILBUR SMITH: THE DARK OF THE SUN. Heinemann, UK, 1965. Signed First edition. CA$800 – 1,200
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: ROBERTSON DAVIES: LEAVEN OF MALICE. SIGNED Clark, Irwin, & Co., Canada. 1954. 1st edition. CA$400 – 600
    Toronto Book Auctions
    March 6, 2024
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [MILITARY FICTION]. 8 VOLUMES SOLD TOGETHER. INCLUDING: Canada's Royal Military College. REVIEW, THE STONE FRIGATE, A HISTORY OF THE RMC… CA$300 – 400
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: [WW1] CANADIAN (C.S.E.F.) SIBERIA 1918-1919 PHOTO ALBUM. With approximately 303 original official war photographs, postcards, and personal photographs. CA$8,000 – 10,000.
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: HANS BELLMER: THE DOLL. 1995, 1st Ed. CA$150 – 300.
    Toronto Book Auctions
    March 6, 2024
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: FAN HO; HONG KONG YESTERDAY. ModernBooks edition, 2006. First edition. 4to. CA$300 – 600.
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: TARYN SIMON: AN AMERICAN INDEX OF THE HIDDEN AND UNFAMILIAR. Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2012. Third edition. CA$600 – 1,000.
    Toronto Book Auctions, Mar. 6: BARBARA KRUGER PICTURE/READINGS. [Self-Published], 1978 First edition. CA$800 – 1,200.
  • 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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