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Buying and Selling Magic Books
Part I: The High End

by William M. Klimon

#69, 29 May 2006

I've bought a few, I've sold a few, and I own a few magic books, but I am not myself a magic book collector. Instead I'm an interested observer of the true aficionados, most recently watching them at the 37th Annual Magic Collectors' Weekend in Washington, D.C.

Sponsored by the Magic Collectors' Association (MCA), an august group of enthusiasts of the magic arts, the Weekend brings together performers, dealers, and collectors at a most interesting happening - one part seminar, one part social gathering, and one part trade fair. The presentations were, generally speaking, of a very high quality. Among the highlights were talks on the Library of Congress's magic collections, on the adventures of a book and magazine collector specializing in Houdini, and on the portrayal of magic in early continental printed books.

The collectors and dealers involved in MCA represent a variety of areas of interest (ephemera, cards and coins, tricks and apparatus, posters, broadsides, books and magazines, etc.) and of levels of expertise, dedication, and resources. A significant percentage of MCA's members are magic book collectors.

Let me first answer the question, what are 'magic books'? For the purposes of Part I of this article, magic books are, first, books devoted to describing the non-mystical, non-supernatural tricks and techniques of conjurers, illusionists, and performers of what later generations would call stage magic or theatrical magic. The earliest magic books, from the sixteenth century, were of this kind; from that genre arose books on the history of particular magical performers and other unusual entertainers (jugglers, sword swallowers, mentalists, spiritualists, etc.) and of groups and troupes of such performers, and eventually on the history of magic in general.

Almost anyone who becomes seriously interested in magic collects books. I can't think of a comparable hobby that so compels bibliophilia. Gardeners, birdwatchers, and coin collectors all use reference books and may even become book collectors, but it doesn't seem as inevitable as it is with magic enthusiasts.

Illustrating that affinity between books and magic is the late, great Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest in 1874, died 1926). The world's greatest escape artist assembled several important book collections which are now at the Library of Congress.

As well as practicing stage magic, Houdini was a prominent debunker of the claims of contemporary spiritualists. He wrote several books on magic and allied fields, including The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (1909), a controversial attack on the prominent nineteenth-century French magician whose name Houdini took; A Magician Among the Spirits (1924); and Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1929).

Houdini is a phenomenon who has become almost superhuman in popular regard, surpassing his original persona. Like his fictional contemporaries Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan, with whom he has sometimes appeared in comic books or pulp fiction, Houdini has attained immortality; his last name alone is synonymous with magician. Consequently, Houdini is very collectible. Almost anything to do with Houdini is collected; certainly first editions of his books, contemporary ephemera, and autograph material are very desirable, but even modern books and periodicals that feature him are sought after.

Now I'd like to focus on some tips and tools for exploring the higher end of the spectrum of the magic book market.

Magic Collecting Organizations and Websites

If you are interested in collecting or dealing in high end magic books, you should probably join MCA (they don't have a website, so you'll have to Google a bit to find them). A sister organization, the New England Magic Collectors' Association, does have an online presence.

The journal Magic Times will keep you abreast of what is happening in the world of magic.

Magic Bibliography

Organizations and websites are good for contacts with fellow collectors and dealers, but of course you'll want to build your own magic reference library. Many books provide an introduction to the history of magic; among them Milbourne Christopher's The Illustrated History of Magic (1973) is considered the best general study. Christopher (1914-84) was an impressive performer, considered by some to be the 'next Houdini' (to which he retorted that he was, in fact, the 'first Christopher'!) but also a great magic collector and scholar. I recently observed a period where The Illustrated History of Magic was becoming a collectible book, but the Internet has revealed many, many copies and it can now be found quite easily and cheaply.

Bibliographically, the starting place for a magic reference library is likely to be Raymond Toole-Stott. Toole-Stott spent a number of years cataloging all the works he could find from the major collections of the last generation, both public and private, to produce what is now considered the essential work on early magic books, A Bibliography of English Conjuring 1581-1876 (1976-78) - a two-volume set with nearly a thousand items listed and described. Expect to pay $400 and up for this, in part because it was produced in limited numbers. Toole-Stott's work, now the standard bibliography in the field, displaced older works by Trevor H. Hall and Edgar Heyl. Hall remains a figure of interest as a great and controversial magic collector; because of his reputation and industry his works may still be valuable references and are certainly still collected.

Even a standard bibliography doesn't exhaust the field, and many other useful references can be found in professional journals (see Linking Rings, Genii, and The Sphinx, among others), auction records, trade catalogues, and library and museum exhibition catalogues. For example, in 1990 the American Antiquarian Society hosted an exhibition of early American magic books. The noted performer, collector, and scholar Ricky Jay was the guest curator for the exhibition and wrote the introduction to the catalogue, published as Many Mysteries Unraveled: Conjuring Literature in America, 1786-1874. The catalogue, as is typical for works of this kind, has itself become collectible, and though it is only a modest 50-page pamphlet, you should expect to pay in the $150-$300 range for it. I've sold a couple of copies in that price range, including one to a Hollywood movie producer.

Another work I've found very useful as an observer of magic collecting is the Magic Bookman (1974), which brings together a host of magic bibliographic information. This pamphlet was compiled by Frances Marshall, wife of the late, great magician Jay Marshall, and published by Magic, Inc., Chicago's oldest magic shop. As with most similar works, the price seems to be rising, so look for it for $10, which I paid, but be prepared to pay $75 and up.


Auction catalogues and records are also useful reference works. Swann Auction Galleries in New York holds regular magic auctions, usually in October, and recent memorable sales have included the last Milbourne Christopher sale (1997) and most recently the Christian Fechner sale (2005). You can see the catalogue for part of the sale of his collection of American & English Magic here.

Collectors' Memoirs

I've always found that the memoirs and biographies of great bookmen are full of interesting and useful information for collectors and dealers alike. David Meyer, who edits MCA's quarterly journal, Magicol, has published two highly entertaining book-collecting memoirs, Memoirs of a Book Snake: Forty Years of Seeking and Saving Old Books (Waltham Street Press, 2001) and Inclined Toward Magic: Encounters with Books, Collectors and Conjurors (Waltham Street Press, 2003).

Inclined Toward Magic includes a description of Meyer's pursuit of a copy of the first edition of Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), the first English-language book to describe the techniques of performance or stage magic and to separate them from witchcraft and black magic. All obtainable copies of the first edition of Discovery of Witchcraft were destroyed in 1603 at the time of the accession of James I, who had denounced it in his Daemonologie (1597). Thus it is exceedingly rare, and the sky is probably the limit for copies of the first edition. Even later editions, translations, and facsimiles are hard to find, and you can probably name your price.

Another prominent collector with an interesting story is Ricky Jay, star of his own Broadway magic shows, James Bond blockbusters, and David Mamet ensemble films. Jay was the subject of a famous New Yorker profile by Mark Singer in 1993, in which much is to be learned about his pursuit of great magical rarities like Thomas Ady's A Candle in the Dark, or a Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches and Witchcraft (1656) and his curatorship of the John Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts, likely the greatest magical library still in private hands (those hands are now David Copperfield's). The Ricky Jay profile is available on his website here.

Electronic Magic Resources

Is it possible that technology will soon answer all of the magic collector's bibliographical questions? One is tempted to say, "Yes," when one has a look at what the Conjuring Arts Research Center, a new private, nonprofit organization based in New York City, is doing. Besides hosting an excellent 9,000-volume library of magic books and undertaking an ambitious publication plan, including Gibecière, a finely produced, very scholarly journal of magic history, the Center, like many other scholarly institutions, is engaged in a digitization project that has produced "Alexander," a huge, searchable database of over 600,000 pages of magic history. If you are serious about magic books, I would certainly recommend browsing the Conjuring Arts Research Center.

Clearly, the high end of magic books is not for every interested collector or dealer. Price alone is a barrier. But magic books in general are becoming more collectible, and the ages of collectors are dropping. This is partly the Harry Potter effect, and partly due to the success of contemporary stage magicians such as Criss Angel (Mindfreak on A&E). The recent success of the novel Carter Beats the Devil prompted an upsurge in collecting Carter the Great memorabilia. A movie biography of Houdini is set to begin filming with Catherine Zeta-Jones this summer, and could continue to spur interest in magicians. Due for release in August is The Illusionist, a movie about a stage magician in Vienna in 1900 for which Ricky Jay acted as consultant. It is based on a short story by Stephen Millhauser, collected in The Barnum Museum (1990).

In Part II of this article, I'll discuss other approaches to buying and selling magic books.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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