Update: The Will & Finck circa 1880s brass sleeve holdout sold for $9,000.
What you see: A brass sleeve holdout device by Will & Finck, dating to the 1880s. Potter & Potter estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Are Will and Finck real people, or are they made-up names, seeing as the company made gear for gamblers who want to cheat? And did the company make straightforward products, too? I assume they are [real people]. It was a pretty well-known business in San Francisco. They were best known as knife-makers.
How does a sleeve holdout work? Let’s say you play a hand and you see a card that will be useful down the line. The clip [shown above, holding the King of Spades card], which is called a thief, you pop it out of your sleeve with pressure on the lever [in the photo above, it is attached to the cuff and has a cross-hatch pattern on one end] and take it for later. You put it in the thief and it goes back in your sleeve. Let’s say you need the card. You put pressure on the lever. It will activate the device, and the tongs will come out of your sleeve. The knobs are where you attach the elastic [which eases the movement of the device]. One is directly behind the lever, and one is on the tongs themselves.
It looks uncomfortable to wear. Was it? It certainly required some getting used to. I imagine it might be like wearing an artificial leg–you strap a metal device to yourself with a tether under your clothes. In a way, it’s like a third hand. In some instances later in the 20th century, the sleeve holdout is called a third hand. I think we have an example in the auction. [Yes indeed, Potter & Potter have a circa 1960 holdout in the sale lineup.]
And the user would wear the device under his forearm? It depended on what you were wearing. It’s tough if you wear a shirt that has buttons on it [on the cuff]. You have to have clear passage out of your shirt. It’d have to be a bare arm under a jacket, or, and I don’t know anyone who did this, a shirt under a jacket. [Later Fajuri clarified: There were plenty of people who wore them over a shirt and under a jacket, but they had strategies to get the device to clear the cuff of the shirt or the opening of their sleeve.] It’s got to move swiftly and silently without hanging up or you’re a dead man, literally. [To point out something that might not be inherently clear–the photograph shows the device upside down.]
Did people use holdouts during card games? Yes. In many ways, it takes more guts and skill to use a holdout than to deal from the bottom of the deck. If you’re caught with a holdout, you have no defense. You literally have no defense.
Did anyone actually get caught using a holdout, for real? Plenty of people have used them. The technology has improved somewhat from what you see here. There are plenty of books filled with gambling lore, and stories of people being caught in the act of using a holdout are numerous. I saw a guy who did it professionally, and it took my breath away. If you’re skilled at using one of these things, it’s a miracle. Personally, I think you’ve got to have nerves of steel.
Did anyone running a card game pat players down before dealing? Seldom does the man exist who has the guts to use one of these things. If someone was particularly suspicious, yeah, you could do that. But anyone who takes the time and effort to use one of these things would take the time and effort to sneak it into a game. The amount of energy people expend to beat the system, cheating at cards, dice, et cetera–it boggles the mind. The ingenuity is considerable. Isn’t there an easier way to make a buck?
Are people using holdouts to cheat at cards today, right now? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Absolutely. I guy I knew once said, “I have to commit three felonies a week to keep my family fed.” He was an expert when it came to using a holdout.
Have you tried it on? No.
How long has the concept of the sleeve holdout been around? Does it predate the 1880s? I believe it does, but I’m not a subject matter expert. I’d have to defer to someone else. I don’t have an exact date in mind when something like this existed. Lot 151 in the auction, a rare book by F. R. Ritter, is the first to show a Jacob’s ladder-style sleeve holdout [like the one pictured above]. The book has sold for as much as $19,000. And it doesn’t hurt that all of these cheating strategies have been mythologized by movies set in the old West. Hollywood has done its part in creating the stories around dodges and subterfuges.
How rarely do antique sleeve holdouts appear at auction? We do them on the regular, but that doesn’t mean they’re common. Once you cross the 1900 mark, they’re slightly more available, which is not to say that any of it is easy to find. In our auctions, they appear about once a year, generally speaking.
How unusual is it to find one of this vintage that’s original and intact, as this one is? Is it rare? We sold a Will & Finck holdout last year for $10,000. [It was lot 249 in the May 19, 2018 auction.] In all our years of gambling auctions, it was the first Will & Finck we’ve sold. Their name is like sterling on silver–the highest quality. I’ve seen one or two others in personal collections.
The lot notes say this sleeve holdout was pictured in the section on cheaters in Time-Life’s 1978 Old West series of books, on page 124. How does that affect its value? A hardcore collector has that book and has ogled it for how long now? We’ve been fortunate to sell [items] from the book. It’s a lot of fun seeing things you’ve been dreaming of for decades and being the one to bring it back to market after all that time. [This is as close as I was able to get to finding a reproduction of page 124 online.]
How to bid: The Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout is lot 448 in Gambling Memorabilia: Featuring the Collection of Tom Blue, taking place March 30, 2019 at Potter & Potter.
Gabe Fajuri is a favorite on The Hot Bid. He’s talked about a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, 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.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.