What you see: A circa 1930s poster for the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Potter & Potter estimates it at $600 to $900.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Could we start by talking about Daisy and Violet Hilton–who they were, and why they’re still interesting to us now? And how did they set themselves apart from other conjoined twins who appeared in public? They started out working for fairly well-established carnivals and graduated to theaters. From everything I’ve read, they were certainly talented performers and entertainers. They practiced assiduously to become talented musicians. They closed their act by dancing with two gentlemen in harmony, in concert. I think Bob Hope was one of the two men dancing at the end of the routine, before he became famous. By all accounts, it was a rousing performance. They commanded a huge salary–Houdini-level money. I can’t state that strongly enough. Literally thousands a week on the vaudeville circuit.
If they appeared in a sideshow, all they’d have to do is show up, but playing music and dancing let them rise in vaudeville? The carnival setting is literally a display of their deformity. They had something to offer above and beyond their unusual anatomy. They were entertainers. They were stars.
Other sets of conjoined twins didn’t go as far as the Hilton sisters in offering more than the fact of their uniqueness? Chang and Eng were very successful and retired wealthy. Some say the Hiltons tried to model themselves on their success that the Bunkers made. [Chang and Eng’s surname was Bunker.]
I see the poster is dated circa 1930s. I take it that it has to date before 1931, when the Hilton sisters won a lawsuit to emancipate themselves from their managers? I believe it’s pre-emancipation, yes.
How rare is this Daisy and Violet Hilton poster? How many have you handled? We’ve sold three, this being the third. I know of a couple others. They’re out there.
Was material featuring conjoined twins less likely to be saved for reasons of taste, or does it survive in roughly the same amounts as other forms of ephemera? I don’t think so. In some ways, it’s a benefit–“I can’t believe I saw it. Here’s a memento of what I saw.”
This Daisy and Violet Hilton poster has the highest estimate of any Hilton sisters material in the auction. Why? Its rarity and its aesthetic graces. [Material from] Chained for Life–I might even call it a C movie, but let’s call it a B movie–is much more readily available, and there’s much more sales history there. Probably the rarest Hilton sisters piece is the souvenir napkin. The collector who consigned it said in 30 years, they’d only seen two. But it’s less sexy than a one-sheet poster.
And that’s why it gets the highest estimate? It’s a striking image, it’s vivid, and we’re talking about people who, in a way, are cultural icons. I think a lot of people could see this item up on their wall, rather than a pinback [a button].
Is this circa 1930s poster scarcer than Chained for Life movie posters? I’m not sure I could quantify. If I remember right, the Hiltons kept working as entertainers only about five to seven years before they died, though work was scarce in their last few years. Toward the end they worked in burlesque houses, doing striptease, because they were desperate for work. In the last few years of their life, they were weighing produce in a grocery store. They had squandered their earnings, or it was spent by the family who took care of them and booked their shows.
Where do the Hiltons rank among the various sets of conjoined twins who appeared before the public? Is it Chang and Eng, and then the Hiltons? I’d say Chang and Eng, the Hiltons, and then the two-headed nightingale, Millie-Christine. The most recent biography was published about Chang and Eng, so perhaps they’re more popular. And they have that connection with P. T. Barnum, of course, which gives them a certain pedigree.
There’s a lot of material that features conjoined twins in this sale—not just stuff that showcases Daisy and Violet Hilton. Is it a typical amount for your annual Circus, Sideshow, & Oddities sale, or is there more than you usually have? I think it’s about what we’ve had in previous sales. It’s on par with what we’ve had in the past.
When did Potter & Potter start doing annual Circus, Sideshow, & Oddities auctions? Not that long ago, actually. This will be our fourth annual auction. We’ve been fortunate to get nice things and become the go-to place for it. We’ve turned away twice as much for the auction as we have in it. Maybe we could do two next year.
And why not have this auction before Halloween? Why hold it in mid-November? We do a magic auction before Halloween. We’ve been doing that for 12 years.
Let me get back to the Daisy and Violet Hilton poster. What condition is it in? I’d give it a B-plus. Most condition issues are around the exterior.
How does it compare to the two other examples you’ve handled? It’s about on par with the others. It’s beautiful.
What is the Daisy and Violet Hilton poster like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? I think when you see it in person, at full size–you’ve got to remember, this would have gone on the side of a building, or in a lobby–it’s quite large. [It measures 42 inches by 27 and three-quarter inches.] We had one guy who came in for the magic auction [which Potter & Potter held on October 26] who said, “I’m so used to seeing it on a screen. When you stand up in front of it, it’s a completely different experience.” He was talking about magic stuff, but you can take it to heart about anything.
Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.
In 2012, Dean Jensen wrote a biography of the Hilton sisters, dubbed The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins. It’s out of print, but worth tracking down.
Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about an impressive talking skull automaton that went on to sell for $13,200, a magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, a rare book from the creator of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, a Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout–a device for cheating at cards–which sold for $9,000, 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.
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