What you see: A sideshow banner made by Snap Wyatt circa 1965, advertising a headless girl illusion. Potter & Potter estimates it at $1,500 to $2,000.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
How rarely do sideshow banners painted by Snap Wyatt come to auction? I don’t know that it’s unusual. They’re out there. Remember, Wyatt said he could paint one banner per day.
Where does Snap Wyatt rank among the known sideshow banner painters? And is this the largest group of Snap Wyatt banners you’ve offered at the same time? He ranks in the top three, top five. And yes, it is the largest group. Usually we get them one or two at a time, if at all.
How does this Snap Wyatt sideshow banner compare to the other Snap Wyatt banners in the auction? It’s in better condition than some of the others. But it’s so hard to say–tastes vary widely. One banner in there shows a magician, and someone will want that who’s interested in magic. Some might be interested in the Headless Girl because they like a woman in a bikini.
Snap Wyatt signed this sideshow banner. Is that unusual? No, he usually put his stencil signature on them. There are many unsigned examples [of sideshow banners] but I think people like examples by known painters–Sigler, Johnson, Wyatt.
How do you know Snap Wyatt painted this sideshow banner around 1965? It’s an educated guess based on its style and condition. It’s not an earlier banner because it’d be a lot rougher as far as condition. Johnny Meah gave me insight into when and how Wyatt worked.
Do sideshow banner collectors avoid banners that don’t show enough signs of having been on the road? I think something collectors look for are show-used banners–ones you can prove were used in a particular show at a particular time. That is to the good. I don’t know that that’s the case here.
Would people who paid to enter the sideshow in 1965 because this banner caught their eye have seen a headless girl illusion that looks like this? [Laughs] No. They would not have seen it in this way, no. It was the equivalent of a line illustration in the Johnson Smith catalog. The difference between imagination and reality is pretty stark.
How far off would it be from what we see on the sideshow banner? It’d be different in that she wouldn’t be sitting sideways, she wouldn’t be in a bikini, and a thing would be attached to her head in place of her head, like the apparatus we’re selling in lot 646. This is very casual-looking, as if she’ll get up and walk around. In a ten-in-one [a sideshow that offered ten acts in one venue for one price], she’d sit in a chair, and there’d be someone next to her, the demonstrator of the attraction, fiddling with knobs on a blinking control board or pouring fluid into tubes leading to her neck, explaining how she survives. He might hand her things to prove she’s alive and not a robot. Since she’s not getting up out of the chair and can’t talk, she’s going to need some help.
Is the headless girl illusion a standard sideshow attraction? I would say it’s a classic, a fairly common thing. It was exhibited at Coney Island for years.
Did the headless girl just sit there, or did she do things? She could have done any number of things. She definitely moved around to prove she was not a wax figure or a mannequin. She could have written on a blackboard, anything to prove she was alive.
How similar would the circa 1965 headless girl apparatus have been to the one you’re offering in lot 646? The method is basically unchanged. The way it works now is identical to the way it worked then. There would have been tubes or a metal apparatus coming out of her neck. Perhaps they dressed it up in different ways, with different headpieces, or different sets of tubes and a lot of things on the side to “keep her alive.”
So you can guess where the headless girl’s head is pretty easily. It depends on how careful the exhibitor is. The illusion can be quite good. It’s up to them to set it up correctly. A lot of show operators didn’t care in the sense that they’d gotten your money. You can still buy the workshop plans from Abbott Magic in Michigan, if you want, and build your own. I think the plans are $5. [He remembered correctly. The plans are $5 as of October 2018.]
And the illusion doesn’t look like the sideshow banner. They all have something sticking out of her head. It’s not simply a headless woman.
How much would the headless girl illusion banner be worth if the artist was anonymous? The banner market is not what it used to be, but I don’t think it would change it tremendously. If it’s anonymous, it’s a 20 to 30 percent difference.
What does the Johnny Fox provenance add to the sideshow banner’s value? I think it adds a little bit to it. A lot of people are interested in Johnny Fox. If you look on Facebook, there are memorials to him. He had a lot of friends. He performed for 37 seasons at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. They named a stage after him in tribute to him. A lot of people fondly remember Fox and his museum.
What are the odds that the same bidder buys the Headless Girl sideshow banner and the headless woman apparatus? About 50/50. I think there’s a good chance someone will buy the prop and use it. I think a collector will buy the banner.
Gabe Fajuri is a favorite on The Hot Bid. He’s talked about a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; 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.
Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.
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