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Harry Handcuff Houdini – A Magical Auction of Ephemera

Handcuffs and other props belonging to one of the world’s most famous illusionists and escape artists, Harry Houdini, are among a selection of 260 lots of conjuring books, prints, memorabilia, decorative objects and apparatus in Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions Bibliophile sale on Thursday 12th December.

Harry Houdini's Handcuffs
Harry Houdini’s Handcuffs

Known at the beginning of his career as “Harry Handcuff Houdini”, the Hungarian-American escape artist prepared a pair of handcuffs specially to ensure a fool-proof escape. Houdini would normally use unprepared apparatus, so the rare pair was probably for use in his particularly risky Chinese Water Torture, or other underwater acts. They are accompanied by a typed letter from magician Billy McComb, detailing how he acquired them.

McComb explains how he found them amongst a large collection of rusty props purchased from the widow of Houdini’s brother, Theo Hardeen. Better known as ‘Dash’ Houdini’s brother was his stage partner before his wife, Wilhelmina Beatrice ‘Bess’ Rahner, replaced him in the 1890s. Whilst restoring the cuffs, McComb discovered they had been modified by Houdini. Such examples are rare survivors from the escape artist’s acts. This pair and letter are together estimated at £2,000-3,000 [Lot 47].

Other props used by Houdini include a pair of Lilly Leg Irons estimated at £2,000-3,000 [Lot 45] and a round barrel screw key padlock, estimated at £1,000-1,500 [Lot 46].

Both were left by Houdini to his friend, and one of the world’s most talented mentalists, Joseph Dunninger. Previous owners include mentalist and escapologist Richard John Silmser; handcuff collector Joseph Tanner of Wheeler-Tanner and John Fisher, gold star member of the Inner Magic Circle. Included with the irons are signed letters by Silsmer and Tanner along with a photocopy of an autograph letter signed by the widow of Dunninger, providing identifying features and provenance.

Houdini’s personal copy of Hudson Tuttle’s Arcana of Spiritualism is among the rare magic-related books in the auction. With engraved portrait bookplate and a few pencil underlinings and markings, it is estimated at £250-350 [Lot 20].

Houdini developed his stage name and was heavily influenced by his idol, the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. In his book Confidences et Revelations, Robert Houdin identifies Recueil des Planches du Dictonnair Encyclopédique des Amusemens des Sciences Mathématique et Physique by Jacques Lacombe as his inspiration to take up conjuring.

Made up of 86 engraved plates and divided into various sections, including physical, mechanical and optical amusements; fireworks; magic numbers, and conjuring, a rare example of Houdin’s muse is estimated at £2,000-3,000 [Lot 209].

Tricks and props from the collection of the actor and stage magician, John “Klox” Forrest, include several early pieces produced by Bland’s and Hamley’s. Forrest first worked as a child actor, appearing in the films Great Expectations in 1946 and Tom Brown’s School days in 1951. He also had a lead role on stage in A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Vivien Leigh in 1949. As a child, while living in Cookham, Berkshire, he was taught conjuring by Horace the brother of Stanley Spencer, eventually turning to magic as a profession and appearing as a cabaret performer in Paris and Monte Carlo as John Klox.

Illusionist Ralph Chart’s Artist’s Palette [pictured left] was invented, and probably constructed by Chart, who performed under the name Raoul. It is not clear whether the stand was made for this or another illusion, but obviously formed part of Ralph Chart’s act. With Raoul labels attached and in its original wooden travelling case it is estimated at £350-500. [Lot 77].

Another highlight is a nineteenth century conjurer’s table made from ebonised wood with carved and partly gilt detachable cabriole legs. The table has four traps, similar to those described by Professor Hoffmann in Modern Magic.[Lot 89].

The auction will be held by Dreweatts and Bloomsbury Auctions at the Godalming saleroom in Surrey on Thursday 12th December with viewing from Tuesday 10th December 2013. The catalogue and details of online bidding with no additional fee can be found at