So, you have decided to collect items by or about Harry Houdini. As an avid Houdini collector I cannot argue with your decision. In my humble opinion, there are many ways to collect Houdini memorabilia. I do believe that there are some questions that you should ask yourself before you begin your journey. Questions such as…Where should I begin? What should I collect? I hope my site will help you to answer these questions, as well as any others that you may have as you enter the magical world of collecting.
My thoughts on collecting Houdini are very simple. Try to acquire noteworthy items that will culminate into a well-rounded collection. I have listed some items below which I believe would an asset to an impressive collection.
- Houdini Books – Either by or about Houdini
- Houdini Autographs, Signed Or Inscribed Items
- Houdini Movie items – Lobby cards, stills, books or ephemera
- Houdini Postcards
- Houdini Business Cards
- Houdini Trade Cards – Cigarette, cigar, candy, etc.
- Houdini Photographs – Either original or reproduction
- Houdini Challenges
- Pitchbooks – Booklets sold at Houdini performances
- Houdini Magic Sets – From the 1930’s
- Houdini Posters Or Broadsides
- Houdini Advertising
- Houdini Era Newspaper + Magazine Articles
- Hardeen, Bess and Family Items
- Magic History And Biographies
- Houdini Era Ephemera
- New Houdini Items – Some, but not all! Unless you just have to buy it.
To suggest collecting books on or by Houdini would seem obvious. Yet in order for a collection to be complete you must include the latest biographies about Houdini; as well as the oldest publications published by Houdini himself. The wealth of information in the text and the reproduction of the images should be your first priority when choosing a book to purchase. A brand new book should be purchased in the best condition you can find. Once purchased, you should remove the dust jacket before you read the book and cover the dust jacket with a Mylar cover. These covers are relatively inexpensive and can be bought on-line. Remember, we are just the temporary owners of these treasures; someday they will belong to someone else. It may seem as though it is a lot of work for a new item, but it really’t and it is certainly worth it. As in all areas of collecting the condition of an item is king.
Now that you have some books on Houdini, in dust covers, you naturally will gravitate towards procuring books by the master himself. What do I buy? Which book do I buy first? How much should I pay? Don’t get overwhelmed by all the choices, prices, editions etc. If you follow these steps; you’ll have a head start on most collectors.
First, find out about the different books by Houdini, such as Paper Magic, Rope Ties and Miracle Mongers and Their Methods. Once you have a list of the various Houdini titles, try to find them on the net. You can search for them on used book dealer sites, auction house sites and eBay for a start. Now here is the tough part. DON’T BUY ANYTHING!! I know it’s difficult, but try to bite the bullet. There will be more Houdini books and Houdini memorabilia than you can ever afford. Trust me.
After you have purchased and covered the new books about Houdini; it is now time for you to procure books by the master himself. There are many important questions that you should ask yourself before you commit to such purchases. What type of books should I buy? Which book do I buy first? How much should I be willing to pay for a particular book? Do not be overwhelmed by all of the choices, editions prices, etc.
In my opinion, there are necessary steps that you should follow prior to your purchases. Become familiar with and knowledgeable about the various books by Houdini, such as, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, Paper Magic and Rope Ties. Once you have a list of the books; find them on the internet. You can search for them on auction house sites, on eBay and on used book dealer sites. As difficult as it may be…DO NOT BUY ANYTHING!!!!!YET!!!!! Trust me; this is just the beginning of your search for The Man From Beyond. There will be more Houdini books available for sale than you will ever be able to afford.
Now search for the list of books that you are interested in on the sites mentioned above. Track them so you can see if the asking price is comparable to the selling price. The easiest site to use would be eBay. It has searches for currently sold items as well as previously sold items. Type the title of the book in the completed items search on eBay; the results of the search list will indicate what the book has sold for recently for example, $68.00, $76.00 and $85.00 respectively .The completed prices will only stay in the search for thirty days. If you save the auction in your favorites section it will be available for ninety days.
Knowing the most recent selling price will allow you to make an educated decision as to whether or not to purchase a particular book. If the seller is asking $600.00 for the book, and the searches indicated that the book sold for much less then perhaps purchasing that book at that time may be something to reconsider. It is important to note that the book could warrant that asking price if it had certain attributes such as, an inscription, an original dust jacket or that it was owned by someone famous. You can search for those attributes as well and then adjust the price accordingly.
During your search for Houdini books, you will inevitably encounter large price discrepancies. Why is the same book listed for $20 by some sellers and other sellers have it $500 or more? There are a few answers to this question . One answer could be the seller’s knowledge or the lack of it. The seller may or may not know the true value of the book . He may sell it cheaply or have it over-priced in hopes of getting a buyer who doesn’t know the current market price of the book. This scenario also works for other areas of collecting Houdini as well as collecting in general. This will become apparent to you when you begin to see the same item listed on eBay over and over again. You will also notice this occurring on the used and rare book sites. On these sites, you’ll see the same titles listed year after year with prices that the dealer picked out of thin air, in hopes of finding an unsuspecting buyer.
I know the seller needs to and should make a profit, that is understandable. What I disagree with is the gouging of the buyer, but there is hope for the buyer. Sometimes the seller comes up short and the buyer makes out. If the seller has a rarity that either he doesn’t know he has or it’s way under-priced, it will disappear very quickly into someone’s collection. These are stories you just don’t hear that often, but they do regularly happen. No seller of collectibles of any kind can be an expert in all fields. This goes for Houdini and magic collectibles too. I, myself, have bought a very rare magic book from a rare book dealer who thought it was just an old magic book. It was an old magic book. The thing that separated it from the rest of the pack was that it contained the first appearance of how to pull a rabbit from a hat. Also that there are only three known copies in private hands. On the Houdini side of collecting, I have purchased a Houdini book from a long time magic dealer for three hundred dollars. This book is so rare it is not in any other Houdini or magic collection. From what I understand, it’s not even in the Library of Congress. So the more you know about your subject, the better equipped you will be to collect.
Be careful! This can be a very dangerous area of Houdini collecting. The only area of collecting that is more treacherous is collecting “Houdini handcuffs”. My feeling is that there are at least as many, if not more, Houdini autographs and signatures today then when he was alive. This probably holds true for handcuffs as well. I truly believe this.
There are many collectors who are their own worst enemies when it comes to collecting magician’s autographs, especially Houdini’s. These collectors either try to convince themselves or talk themselves into believing that the $200 Houdini clipped signature that they see on an auction site is real. They also want to convince themselves that this a great deal at this price, when they know that legitimate Houdini autographs sell for five to ten times and sometimes more than this paltry $200 asking price. I don’t know if the logic of these collectors is greed or just being naive. Either way, this way of thinking will end up being a headache for these collectors in the future.
When you decide to buy a Houdini autograph, be informed before you do. You should have at least one autograph in your collection. An autograph, as well as some of the items mentioned above, should also be included in your collection. Your collection, whether it be Houdini, magic, stamps, coins, etc., should be well-rounded. This will be a recurring theme here and will be discussed later. Let’s get back to autographs.
Think before you buy. This goes for all collectibles, but maybe more so with autographs and signatures. The first thing you should do is to get acquainted with Houdini’s signature, or whoever it is you are collecting. You can find images all over the net of genuine signatures. The best sources to look for are signed letters, books by Houdini and documents. You should keep the ones you like on file on your computer or print them out or both.
Houdini had different signatures during his life. There are similarities, but there are also differences. You want to know these so you can avoid the fake signatures that are out there. As mentioned above, Houdini signed differently during his lifetime. It varied from his early career, when his mother died, legal documents and checks, etc. You should get acquainted with these different styles.
The safest bet in buying a Houdini autograph is probably a letter written or typed on one of his letterheads. These are very tough to fake and I’ve only seen one or two over the years. A nice Houdini letter is not cheap. The better the content of the letter, the more expensive it usually is. A quick note, such as, “I’ll be back on the 12th. See you then. Houdini”, should be the most reasonably priced of Houdini letters. If the letter says that “I fractured my leg tonight on the Water Torture Cell.” or “Thurston is a piker.”, prepare to go into hock.
In my opinion, a book written by and signed by Houdini, is probably still the best value versus all other inscribed or signed Houdini material. Although, autographed books are sometimes faked as well. I’ve seen many questionable, if not downright fake, signed books. Stay away from books that are just signed “Houdini”. These forgeries are the easiest to produce. Houdini either wrote “With compliments of the author, Houdini” or he inscribed it to someone. These types of inscriptions are much easier to verify than just a simple signature. Not to mention more desirable to the collector for reasons just mentioned.
Signed or inscribed photos of Houdini are highly desirable by the collector. These are at least as costly as signed letters, if not more. The reason for this is that it is visual and it can be displayed by the collector. The clearer the signature and the contrast of the signature will affect the price of the photo. The image of Houdini and the condition and size of the photo are other factors that will also affect the price. The most encountered size for signed photos are either 5X7 or postcard size. The 8X10 is much harder to locate because this format was just coming into vogue at the end of Houdini’s lifetime.
As I mentioned before the single name signature in a book is one to be wary of, if not to avoid all together. There are two more types of autographs to definitely avoid at all costs. These are the clipped signature and the autograph on a small slip of paper or index card. These are without a doubt the most faked autographs out there, Houdini or otherwise.
The clipped signature is a phenomena that really started about 15 to 20 years ago, at least in the world of Houdini collecting. Back then you could buy a nice signed genuine Houdini item for an average of $250 to $350. At this price level, it became worth it to some to make fake Houdini autographs to sell cheaply and quickly. All one needed was paper from the 1920’s or before and a pencil. A fountain pen if the forger was really good. The paper is readily available using the endpapers from a book from the time period. With some practice, the forger could produce 3 or 4 semi-passable fakes from a single page from a book. This is the same method used today. You can easily find them out on the net on either auction sites or websites. It always amazes me that these bogus items still sell from time-to-time. Then I remember that there are always new collectors coming into the field. They shouldn’t feel bad as I have seen major auction houses and veteran magic dealers get duped with fake Houdini signatures and autographs.
So, don’t get scared about buying a Houdini autograph, just try to remember the above when you do.
HOUDINI MOVIE ITEMS
This is one of my favorite areas of Houdini collecting. Like most areas of Houdini collecting, it can get expensive. The reasons why this is so are many fold. The first and probably the most logical reason is that Houdini holds the most interest to many collectors in and out of the magic collecting circle. Houdini had reached such heights of fame in his lifetime, that it would almost guarantee his collect-ability. He was a household name, his name was in dictionaries and was used in everyday language. His name appeared in newspapers from coast-to-coast, not to mention the world. He was at the apex of his field then and now. Today, he has reached mythical stature.
Another reason why this area is so collectible is that it crosses over to other genres of collecting outside of the magic world. For instance, as Babe Ruth, Thomas Edison and Marilyn Monroe are tops in the field of autograph collecting, this holds true for Houdini. Charlie Chaplin who is right at the top of silent movie collecting was also a superstar. Question, then why when you’re at an auction does Houdini win hands down? You could have Chaplain and Houdini lobby cards or posters up at auction and Houdini will command the higher hammer price. The items are equally rare. Is the Houdini collector a more avid bidder? Is the movie collector up against a different kind of collector? I think the answer is yes to both questions.
Lets get back to the movie items themselves. Original lobby cards and movie stills are more desirable than reproductions. That being said, the reproductions should not be avoided. I, myself, buy the reproductions when I find them. I like to have them in my collection until the occasion arises when I can buy the original. Both the lobby card and movie still copies are out there to purchase. The lobby card copies are fairly easy to recognize when compared to an original. The older photo copies are becoming somewhat of a challenge to detect. Some of these reproductions were very well done fifty or sixty years ago. Now, over time, they look very close to an original photo from the Houdini era. When seeing these copies on the net, it is very hard to tell if the photo is an original or not. Last week I saw on an auction site some Houdini photos that were printed in the 1970’s. They even had a Houdini stamp on the back. They looked great at first glance. Luckily, I noticed the seller was selling multiples of the same photo, so I avoided them. Still, they would be very hard to detect by just seeing them on the screen.
As with the other items mentioned to collect, the movie related part of Houdini’s life should be in your collection. As I mentioned before and I’ll mention again, your collection should be well-rounded. There is also something to say about having a finely focused section in the overall collection. I’ll talk more about this later.
HOUDINI POSTCARDS, BUSINESS + TRADE CARDS
This is a very interesting field of Houdini collecting. There is a very wide variety of these cards. It is just the finding of them may be elusive. What is nice about them is that you can have an impressive collection of these cards and keep them in a binder, if you’re pressed for space. You could also have your cards in single card holders and have them on display. This could be quite impressive too with a nice layout.
There must be hundreds of different Houdini-era postcards that Harry had printed in his lifetime. He used them in correspondence to fans and family, mementos of meeting him, advertising etc. I have an invoice to print postcards for Houdini and the price was $6.00 per 100. The card at the top of this article is the card he would have ordered at this price. I would presume that a simpler postcard just using a photo would have been even less expensive. I think it was in vogue back then to have personal photos printed into postcards. This and the price is the reason I would guess there are so many different Houdini postcards.
There are some fake postcards out there, so be careful. What is usually done is to take a regular postcard from the era and glue a Houdini photo from a magazine on top of the original image. If you bend the card gently in different directions, you can sometimes see an air bubble where glue is not present. Now with the latest printers out there today, I can only imagine what will turn up next.
As for Houdini business cards and trade cards, this field usually flies under the radar of most collectors. There’s really not much to worry about here. The cards being trimmed and some fantasy Houdini business cards out there, this is a safe area to collect. A fantasy piece is an item that has been produced recently for whatever reason a person may want to do it. To me, they shouldn’t be collected. They just cheapen your collection.
Go get yourself a coffee, this is going to be a long one. Collecting photographs has always been near the top in interest to the Houdini collector. There are many reasons why this is so. Photographs are relatively inexpensive, especially the reproductions. Many collectors and print sellers on the net surf all over to add to their collections or inventory to sell. Is this right? I don’t know. I would think it be okay for a collector to print one for his personal collection, but an Internet lawyer I am not. What is probably not right is to copy someone’s unique photo from the net and re-sell it. This I see very often. Here’s a excellent story of captured/copied photo that happened years ago and is still on Ebay till this day. A seller had a very nicely signed, original Houdini postcard up for auction. It had Houdini wearing a hat and the inscription was nice and was legit. Well, within 24 hours, there was copy of it on Ebay! It was the wrong size and couldn’t even compare to the original. It still turns up on Ebay till this day.
to be continued………