What you see: A tuxedo outfit worn on stage by Cardini, including spats, bow tie, vest, white dress shirt, pocket handkerchief, fake flower, and top hat. It sold at Potter & Potter in April 2013 for $72,000 [with premium], a world auction record for a magician’s costume at auction.
Who was Cardini? Born Richard Valentine Pitchford in 1895 in Swansea, England, he was a magician who patterned his stage name after Harry Houdini. He practiced card tricks in the trenches while serving in World War I, and the harsh conditions forced him to master the sleights with his gloves on. After the war he traveled the world performing his magic act and ultimately rose to the top of his profession. His wife, Swan Walker, joined him onstage as his assistant. Pitchford died in 1973 at the age of 77.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
How often do you receive stage-worn costumes from any prominent magician, period? We have not had many. Cardini wore many tuxedos over his life. We’ve never had anything Houdini wore before, except for a straitjacket. We sold a Harry Blackstone Sr. tuxedo last year for a lot of money [$45,600 with buyer’s premium]. They’re not like magic books or tricks, which we get on a daily basis.
How many tuxedos would Cardini have traveled with? He had to have had more than one, yes? He had at least two. He’d need to have fresh clothes because he’d do multiple shows a day. He came up in vaudeville, doing five to seven shows a day at its peak. Then he transitioned to nightclubs and hotels. He was working.
Do you know when he would have worn and used this tuxedo? What span of time? We don’t know, but I’d guess later. It came directly from his daughter, and she got it from her mother [Swan Walker, Cardini’s wife and stage assistant].
The lot notes say the tuxedo is “custom-tailored”. Did Cardini have anything done to the suit to help him with his act? There might have been one or two things. Most of the things he added to the tux are literally added to the tux, not sewn in. There’s folklore that Cardini’s extra-long tails inspired Fred Astaire to add long tails [to his tuxedo coat] for his dance moves, but there’s no proof. But they [Cardini and Astaire] certainly came up through the ranks at the same time.
The lot notes say this outfit is “perhaps the most iconic costume of the most imitated magic act of the twentieth century”. Could you elaborate? Cardini and his wife did a 12-minute act for four decades. He became the archetype of nightclub and vaudeville magic. He didn’t invent the card trick, but he was what everyone aspired to because his technique was perfect and he did it wearing gloves. He had a character, a slightly tipsy gentleman, who people could recognize. He had a monocle, a top hat, a cigarette holder–he had a brand, essentially. You look at Cardini and think, ‘Isn’t that how magicians dress?’ Yes, and it’s because of this guy.
He didn’t wear the outfit to look like a magician–he wore it to look like a gentleman arriving at his club. Or leaving his club. Watch the video. His character is not exactly surefooted. He’s using the monocle as a way to register surprise. He had a little story to tell within the span of the act. It was all part of the story.
Just how badass is it that Cardini did his card tricks while wearing gloves? It’s really hard. I’ve tried it. It’s hard enough to do what he’s doing without wearing gloves. That’s the thing–his technique is flawless.
Have any other magicians tried to perform card tricks with gloves on? People have done it since. How well is a matter of debate.
The Cardini tuxedo did exceptionally well, selling for $72,000 against an estimate of $2,500 to $3,500, but almost everything in the 2013 Cardini auction did exceptionally well. You sold the last pair of gloves he wore on stage for $26,400 against an estimate of $800 to $900. You sold his monocle for $12,000 against an estimate of $1,200 to $1,500. You sold his bow tie for $10,800 after estimating it at $300 to $500.
Why was the Cardini auction such a big hit? It was a big breakout sale for us. We had Cardini’s whole life. Trunks, costumes, books from his library, we had everything, and he was one of the most important magicians of the 20th century. We had people calling who we hadn’t heard from before. To present somebody’s life so completely is unusual.
Was Cardini a magician’s magician? He was, but at the same time, he had incredible real-world success. He was the top of the heap. He combined great artistic presentation with impeccable technical skill and melded it into an incredible act.
What was the experience of selling the Cardini tuxedo like? Anticipation was high in advance of the sale. There were ten or fifteen lots in there that we knew would be off the charts. His daughter [who consigned the material] said she didn’t want to watch the stuff sell. She stayed at the back for the first three, four, five lots. They started to go, and she never left. I’ll never forget going out with her family after the auction. She told me that despite all the work [her parents did] they didn’t have money. They spent every dollar they had. They never really saved anything, so she never got an inheritance. After the auction, she said her parents did finally give her a gift.
Did the sale of the Cardini tuxedo stand out? I think at that point it was the most expensive thing we’d ever sold. I think the monocle came up before that. I don’t think anybody thought it would get there. I remember the day before the auction thinking we wouldn’t sell the tux. (Laughs.) There was not a lot of advance interest in that item. I don’t think we had any absentee bids on it until the day before the auction.
Why does the tuxedo stick in your memory? It was well-used. I remember the lapels showing they’d been worn down a bit. It’s not like he was going out to dinner parties–he was out working. He wore a tux to work. What I would say in reflecting on it is it sold for more than many Hollywood costumes from the same era. It sold for more than a pair of Laurel and Hardy costumes auctioned at Profiles in History. People probably know Laurel and Hardy more than Cardini. That struck me.
What’s out there that could challenge the record set by the Cardini stage-worn tuxedo? There are at least two Cardini tuxes out there, but I don’t think it [one of those tuxes] can do it again, no. A Houdini tuxedo, if it ever shows up. We had a Houdini thing come close. A brooch worn by Bess Houdini sold for $72,000 last year. Outside of Houdini, I doubt it. We sold Harry Blackstone Senior’s tux for a lot of money, more than I expected. It was a huge price, and Harry Blackstone was a great magician. And still, Cardini beat him.
If you didn’t click on the link to the 1957 Cardini performance–the only one known–do yourself a favor and watch it now.
Gabe Fajuri is a favorite on The Hot Bid. He’s talked about a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.
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