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Buying and Selling Magic Books
Part II: Alternative Approaches

by William M. Klimon

#74, 31 July 2006

In Part 1, I described some resources that the serious dealer or collector in antiquarian magic books will want to be familiar with. But, while we can all recognize the names of the classic rarities described in the magic bibliographies - e.g., Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), Samuel Rid's The Art of Jugling or Legerdemaine (1614), Hocus Pocus Junior (1634), and Henry Dean's Whole Art of Legerdemain, or, Hocus Pocus in Perfection, which went to sixteen editions from 1727 to 1850 - very few of us will find, sell, or own such material or obtain many of the other items listed in Toole-Stott's bibliography.

Even if you can't buy or sell those rare and expensive classics, you can still pursue the history and bibliography of magic books. The "books-on-books" approach is always popular: Start your collection with some of the bibliographies I discussed in Part I. If, however, you're more interested in narrative, you're in luck because the history of magic has never been taken more seriously. A biennial Conference on Magic History has been held in Los Angeles for the past 15 years, and Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania has sponsored a series of conferences since 1999 on "The Theory and Art of Magic." Now, a similar conference has been inaugurated in Europe, with the first European Congress on "Magie, Histoire & Collections" in Paris last year. But despite this recent academic interest, some of the most interesting contemporary works on magic history have emerged from the community of performers.

Ricky Jay, whose bibliographic and bibliophilic acumen were previously noted, has also produced several important works of magic history. His infamously titled Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women (1986), a rollicking pageant of the history of unusual entertainers, will run $250 and up in first edition. His more recent sequels, Jay's Journal of Anomalies (2001) and Extraordinary Exhibitions (2005), both lavishly illustrated from his own collection, will bring similar prices when signed by the master. But his Magic, Magic Book, a limited-edition fine-press production that combines a history of magic trick books with several artists' reproductions will go for $3,000-$5,000. (Jay's first book, Cards as Weapons [1977], a pseudo-history inspired by his predilection for throwing playing cards, will bring $500 for a fine first edition, and even copies of the paperback reprint edition will bring a few hundred, as they frequently do on eBay.)

Jay's work has inspired other magic historians, like Jim Steinmeyer, a renowned designer of magic illusions, who has worked with Jay, David Copperfield, and Siegfried & Roy, among others. Steinmeyer recently published two histories: Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible (2003), and The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer" (2005), which may eventually rise in monetary value but are sure to have high content value as introductions to their subjects.

Likewise, other new works, like Karl Johnson's The Magician and the Cardsharp: The Search for America's Greatest Sleight-of-Hand Artist (2005), and Peter Lamont's The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History (2005), readily available now, may be a entry to collecting the history of magic.

But, if you are interested in antiquarian magic books and yet don't have the necessary means to collect or deal in the classic rarities mentioned above, there is no need for despair. The best collectors (and the dealers who help them) don't give up that easily. What it does mean, though, is that you may have to substitute time and knowledge for money: You will have to seek out uncommon, unknown, or otherwise overlooked material in the field - set out on, what John Carter called, "new paths in book collecting."

One veteran magic book collector who did just that was Ray Ricard, who described his methodology in a lecture originally delivered in 2002 on "Unusual Sources of Legerdemain," fortunately available online.

Ricard's lecture is incredibly valuable for the magic collector, but even for other subject-matter collectors it is useful in suggesting strategies for finding books in one's area of interest that might not be obvious to professional bibliographers, collectors, or anyone else. For example, Ricard shows how nineteenth-century "Boy's Own" books - that is, books on amusements, science and natural philosophy, jokes, and so on, often and unexpectedly included extensive coverage of magic, legerdemain, and conjuring.

Where else can one look for unpredictable sources of magic books? It helps to know a bit about the history of magic (hence last time's recommendation of Milbourne Christopher's Illustrated History of Magic). From its origins, magic was associated if not allied with juggling, and many of the earliest magic books are also juggling books. Sophisticated collectors have long known this, and modern juggling has diverged significantly from its magical origins (or vice versa) - but there's still the chance of coming upon some magic material in juggling publications.

There's also a good chance of finding magic in material on spiritualism. Spiritualism was a late-nineteenth-century religious movement that professed belief in direct contact with the dead through the use of sťances and spirit mediums. Spiritualism first surfaced and grew up together with the Golden Age of stage magic. They shared many techniques and effects: disappearing cabinets, spectral projections, trance states, and miraculous escapes. There were even direct connections - for example, the great Harry Kellar (1842-1922) developed a magic act out of feats performed by the Davenport Brothers, renowned spiritualists for whom he had worked. But because their motives differed so radically there was little love lost between magicians and spiritualists. Magicians feared being tarred with the brush of fraud aimed at so many spiritualists, culminating in the great anti-spiritualist crusade of Houdini. Still, Houdini did assemble a spiritualism book and paper collection as impressive as his magic collection, and there is much spiritualism material that would be of interest to magic collectors, as Milbourne Christopher documented in his Mediums, Mystics and the Occult (1975). Spiritualist material may be increasingly hard to find, but it's out there. It has recently become a subject of renewed academic (and bibliographic) interest. John Buescher's "Spirit History" website has a lot of good information for the spiritualism collector

If spiritualism is where magic meets religion, mentalism is where it meets science - or perhaps more correctly pseudoscience. Mentalism is the performance side of ESP, where practitioners demonstrate apparent feats of mind-reading, clairvoyance, and other para-psychological effects. The literature on mentalism is vast and ranges from pamphlets to multi-volume tomes, notably from the first half of the twentieth century. BookThink's Science Fiction Editor Tim Doyle once rescued a large cache of magic books, pamphlets, and catalogues that were on their way to a local thrift store's dumpster. Among the more saleable items were several related to mentalism, featuring such titles as Mental Magic and Allied Arts, Tony Corinda's "Thirteen Steps to Mentalism" pamphlets, and Lewis Ganson's Magic of the Mind. I would never pass up such material if I came across it (if, that is, I were as lucky as Tim was!).

The more one thinks and digs, the more obscure material related to magic one can find. There is the history of science, which is intimately bound up with the history of magic, more on the alchemical side than the performance side, though. The work to start with there is Lynn Thorndike's History of Magic and Experimental Science (8 volumes, 1923-1958). Libraries often deaccession this classic work, which, even in an ex-library state, will fetch $300-$500 on eBay, but it may also serve as a valuable reference work for the nascent collector or dealer. Then, there is hypnotism, which has long had a disreputable side not unconnected to stage magic. Hypnotism books are not to be passed up. Or one can look at "black magic," the history of witchcraft and occultism (see, e.g., Craig Stark's two-part series on Aleister Crowley, "The Most Evil Man in the World?").

And on it goes. To paraphrase the Good Book, of the making of magic books there seems to be no end. It's up to the ingenuity of collectors and dealers to find and develop other interesting areas of magic book collecting.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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