Potter & Potter Auctions, Chicago, Illinois
Photos courtesy Potter & Potter Auctions
A smart bidder can find just about anything in a Chicago auction, from a Meissen monkey band to prime mid-century furniture. But one auction house has traveled a different path. Tucked into a North Side neighborhood in the upscale Lincoln Square area, Potter & Potter Auctions since it launched in 2007 has specialized mainly in the history and collectibles of magic. Said to be the only auction house worldwide to sell magicana—anything related to the nuts-and-bolts and/or ephemera of the magician’s art—it has also sold coin-operated machines, posters, prints, and collections related to the interesting and odd.
Odd, as in the September 26 sale of 725-plus lots of circus and sideshow memorabilia, including troves of collectible print oddities such as the books Bird-Headed Dwarfs and Diet or Die: The Dolly Dimples Weight Reducing Plan. Both were in a lot that sold above estimate at $360 (includes buyer’s premium). A lot of ten life-size wax museum hands brought $1020, and another lot of ten brought $840. The total sale result was $345,000. Fifty-six lots fetched between $1000 and $4999, and five lots exceeded $5000.
Heading Potter & Potter is owner Gabe Fajuri (Fa-hoo-ree), who has been fascinated by magic since his teens. His dad and business partner, Sami, is also a long-term collector, who started in antiques and paper ephemera, antique books, and philately. The name Potter & Potter derives from the family name, as translated. In 2017 the auction house sold a three-sheet poster for Harry Houdini’s “Water Torture Cell” for $114,000.
Divided into four sections (Posters; Circusiana; Books, Photography & Ephemera; and Oddities & Curiosities), the sale catalog is a great show on its own. One page in the catalog shows a circa 1915 color lithograph for a Barnum & Bailey show in Cincinnati featuring “Miss Amy Dupont / First and Only Lady Elephant Trainer and Her Marvelous War Elephants.” Packed with World War I imagery worn by elephants, the linen-backed 20" x 30¼" poster sold for $2040 (est. $800/1200). Florid descriptors on posters touted period attractions such as “Balkis: A Grand Transcendental Spectacle,” an ancient Egyptian theme ($1680); and “The Great Balkani Troupe,” an Oriental equestrian theme ($1320). Not that promoters were shrinking violets: Barnum & Bailey bannered itself as “The World’s Largest, Grandest, Best, Amusement Institution.”
Four Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. circus posters from the 1960s sold for $450 (est. $200/300), and a Dan Rice “3 Ring Circus” color lithographed poster from the 1910s, featuring three polar bears perched on a red see-saw, soared to $2640 (est. $600/800). Fajuri allowed only that the poster “went to Hollywood” but no more. That a poster with balancing polar bears sold so high explains much of the magic in this collecting arena. Hyperbole and the improbable are part of the fun; ditto for childlike wonder. Some buyers grew up with memories of a certain circus or show site, and as adults they collect mementos of their memories. Others warm to whimsy or anticipation prompted by the visual. Some collect memorabilia from small or regional circuses.
Shooting humans from a cannon is so yesterday. The 72" x 96" painted canvas circus sideshow banner, made by Alexander Kensington and signed on the back “Dedicated to ‘Woody the Woodruff Cat’ / The Cat shot out of a cannon 1999 / Circus Mondo / 1998,” hit $2040 (est. $1000/1500). Where was the SPCA?
As in all collecting, the rare and unusual often sells best. For example, consider a circa 1998 “Feline in Flight” painted and signed canvas show banner that sold for $2040 (est. $1000/1500). Dedicated on the reverse to Woody, the act’s star, the banner depicts a black-and-white cat shot out of a cannon and zooming aloft.
Fajuri added that in this sale appeal ran from highbrow to low, such as a Tom Thumb miniature gilt metal wedding locket, circa 1862, accompanied by small photos from the wedding plus an ambrotype wedding portrait, that sold for $1140 (est. $200/300). Taste depends on the individual, but as a lowbrow example, we submit a lot of four modern faux “oddity” specimens, including an alien in a jar that sold for $210 (est. $50/150). Add an early 20th-century mortician’s embalming case along with contents that sold for $390 (est. $250/350) and a “Cyclops Baby” sideshow banner, circa 2000, that sold for $390 (est. $100/200), and you get the picture.
Bidders who go for “naughty” items saw a circa 1950 cloth banner “Eve: Naked and Ashamed. Victims of Passion” soar to $540 (est. $400/600) and watched a circa 1935 Schell Bros. Shows stone lithographed poster promoting “Miss Vates Lola in Person: Hollywood’s Movie Sweetheart and Modern Venus” reach $660 (est. $400/800). Sex sells.
Collectors of all ages worldwide follow Potter & Potter sales, and the house has become a go-to source, on the auction house’s website and on “Quicker than the Eye” (www.quickerthantheeye.com), an online source for magic collectibles, tricks, and ephemera. Fajuri said he has “regular customers” who are “consistent buyers.”
Bids in the sale came from the Netherlands, England, France (major circus collectors), Latvia, and more. Potter & Potter scheduled 15 auctions for 2020; that says a lot about demand. Small wonder Fajuri told us, “We’ve found a hardcore audience,” plus “bidders with important collections,” ranging from institutions to art dealers and repeat buyers.
Top lot in the sale was this banner lettered “Freaks Past & Present,” 1930s-40s, more than 20' wide. The unsigned canvas is thought to have been done by banner artist Fred Johnson. It sold for $28,800 (est. $6000/9000) to a regular private customer via the Potter & Potter site.
The sale’s top lot was a painted canvas carnival banner, 90" high x 20' wide, that promised “freaks, curiosities, and the world’s strangest people.” The banner for an American sideshow promised a “Cavalcade World of Wonder: Everything Alive” and sold for $28,800. The artwork in full color showed a snake charmer, a three-legged man, a magician, a tattooed man, Ubangi “savages,” a frog boy, little people, a fire-eater, and more.
A bidder hit the mother lode on circus luminaries when a Diane Arbus group portrait of stars, including Congo the Jungle Creep, a “Russian midget,” Manzini the Strong Man, and others, sold for $12,000 (est. $10,000/20,000). Shot inside Hubert’s Museum in New York City around 1965 by Arbus, a photography star in her own right, the large photo on marked Agfa paper soared despite numerous age-related flaws.
Four Arbus lots of gelatin silver photographs featured sword swallower Sandra Reed and her sister Doreen. Titled Albino Sword Swallower and Her Sister, the 1970 photos from Maryland were from Sandra Reed’s personal collection. One full-body shot and a three-quarter-body shot of the pair each fetched $6000 (est. $10,000/20,000). Long-distance shots, estimated at $10,000/20,000, did not sell. Fajuri told us that had photos of the women included swords, the results would be “significantly more.” One lot of nine small photos from the Reed collection, including head shots of Sandra alone with swords in her open mouth, sold for $480 (est. $150/250).
It was the kind of sale where if you snooze, you lose. We watched on the day of the sale as Fajuri’s head and shoulders set against a burgundy Potter & Potter banner showed him rolling through lots at a brisk clip while talking occasionally to staff on hand. LiveAuctioneers, Invaluable, and the Potter & Potter website carried the sale. The most dollars came through the Potter & Potter site.
Four tattoo flash sheets, 1930s-40s, sold for $1320 (est. $400/600). Note the period themes.
Almost 30 lots of tattoo-related photos and memorabilia proved popular. From the 1960s, studio shots and candids of heavily tattooed Australian tattoo artist Cindy Ray sold for $96 to $360. Top dollar was for a glossy shot of her at work in her studio. Vintage tattoo sheets with varied ink designs sold as high as $1320, the amount paid for a lot of four American 1930s-40s flash sheets featuring angels, nurses, skulls, and more. A set of six Burmese bronze tattoo needles brought $510 (est. $200/300).
“The archives were unique,” added Fajuri. Serious collectors warm to the history of circuses, magic, and all material in the genre. Estimated at $1500/2500, a group of 13 1950s albums from the collection of Carl “Pop” Haussman, who boasted of having the world’s largest autograph collection, sold for $4230. Considered an archive on most performers from a range of circuses, the signed images were a collector’s dream. A group of five binders containing letterhead correspondence, contracts, and other ephemera, mainly American, from many differing circuses and carnivals, fetched $4080 (est. $1500/2500).
Rounding out odds and ends, lots included a pair of photographs showing a crooked gambler’s holdout trick that sold for $450 (est. $125/225); a group of five photos from the early 1900s of a pet cemetery that sold for $840 (est. $150/250); a Francisco Goya etching, circa 1867, The Prisoner, that sold for $450 (est. $200/300); a “Salome” prop papier-mâché decapitated head of John the Baptist, made for the 1964 film The Flesh Eaters, that sold for $390 (est. $500/1000); and 30-plus lots of taxidermy and animal pelts, including a 105" long zebra full-hide pelt rug that sold for $2640 (est. $1000/1500). There really was something for everyone.
For more information, visit the Potter & Potter website (www.potterauctions.com) or call (773) 472-1442.
Considering the 1940s, could this sideshow entrance banner be any more titillating? The starring magician rates a bubble in the corner as nearly naked ladies kick across the approximately 93" x 232" canvas. Made in Chicago, painted and signed by Fred Johnson, the art fetched $4800 (est. $8000/12,000).
Costumes from now-defunct circuses were popular. The ultimate of circus chic, this heavily sequined and rhinestone-studded purple ringmaster’s jacket, owned and worn by Joe Pon, ringmaster for Circus Vargas, and accompanied by a certificate of provenance, fetched $840 (est. $125/225).
Bling was the thing. This Circus Vargas massive (123" x 133") elephant blanket made for Hattie, decorated in red, white, and blue sequins for a 1976 tribute, along with other decorated pieces (not shown) brought $660 (est. $300/600).
This circa 1960 vintage sideshow banner is advertising for Frank Lentini (1899-1966), a performer who was billed as the three-legged man with 16 toes. The banner, approximately 93" x 118", with intact metal rings for hanging, sold for $3120 (est. $2000/3000).
This charming fellow is “Swamp Man,” a mid- to late 20th-century sideshow display with a bulbous head, glass eyes, and horsehair covering his head. Someone loved him, as he sold for $720 (est. $250/350).
Bidders found this card picturing Harry Houdini inserted in their mailed catalogs. Nice touch!
Scientific instruments are always popular. The 13" x 21" early 20th-century brass and metal mechanical orrery by Hawkes Mfg., with a compass on the center rod, and with its original metal shipping/storage container, sold for $1800 (est. $800/1200).
Three sets of mid-20th-century clown shirts and pants plus accessories and a plaid suit, from the collection of Ted Haussman, zoomed to $960 (est. $200/400).
Originally published in the December 2020 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2020 Maine Antique Digest