When the sleight-of-hand magician Ricky Jay died (he might prefer the word “disappeared”) in 2018, he left behind the magical collection he spent a lifetime acquiring, a library of occult arcana unlike any ever assembled. Starting tomorrow, Jay’s trove of “objects spanning the history of magic illusionism, popular entertainment and other curiosities” is being auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York. Not since Prospero threw his sorcery book into the sea at the end of The Tempest has so much secret knowledge been voluntarily relinquished.
Growing up in 1950s New Jersey, young Richard Jay Potash learned from the masters, absorbing the sophisticated, velvet-gloved approach of Dai Vernon and Cardini as well as the sideshow-carnival-barker tradition of the “Coney Island Fakir,” Al Flosso. Even as a young man, Jay had an appreciative awareness that his mentors were the last of a disappearing kind, magicians who had perfected their unusual entertainments on the vaudeville circuit. But, for Jay, it was not enough to merely go back 50 or so years to find inspiration; by pursuing and collecting antique manuscripts and artifacts, he both revived and preserved a much older and stranger magic.
With the obsessive perfectionism of both a practitioner and a collector, Jay devoted himself to a lifelong investigation of “conjurers, cheats, hustlers, hoaxsters, pranksters, jokesters, imposters, pretenders and mechanical marvels.” As with his act, Jay’s collecting juxtaposed and venerated the lofty with the low-life. “He was not a trophy hunter,” Sotheby’s specialist Selby Kiffer tells me. “He didn’t simply want the most expensive examples of the best-known figures.”
Jay learned from the masters, absorbing the sophisticated, velvet-gloved approach of Dai Vernon and Cardini as well as the sideshow-carnival-barker tradition of the “Coney Island Fakir,” Al Flosso.
Kiffer clarifies: “while magic is a big component of the collection and an important component of it,” the collection also includes “all manner of popular entertainment from the 15th century forward. The range of materials—not just colorful posters, but text broadsides, books, photographs, and pamphlets.”
To wit, a 1584 first edition of Reginald Scot’s “explosive treatise on witchcraft” is presented alongside a vibrant 1910 lithograph of three women cyclers suspended in the air above a lion cage in a circus death ride. The selection of Harry Houdini ephemera contains a 1913 poster depicting his infamous escape from the water torture cell, but more impressive is an 1895 color poster which advertises the earliest of Houdini’s magical acts as a card magician, long before he achieved worldwide fame.
A magician is often said to be only as good as his secrets. I ask Kiffer if any of the manuscripts or books in the collection reveal the technical aspects behind Jay’s illusions. “The visual material will be collected for its aesthetic value,” Kiffer says, “but there are also how-to books. This is pragmatic material—it is not just retrospective.” But in magic as in life, it is never enough to merely know the inner workings of a magical effect. If it were that simple, everyone would be a great magician.
Sotheby’s New York will auction the Ricky Jay collection on October 27 and 28
Greer Sinclair is a Los Angeles–based writer