Update: The circa 1915 Alexander, The Man Who Knows poster sold for $1,560.
What you see: A circa 1915 poster touting Alexander, The Man Who Knows. It measures 108 inches by 80 1/2 inches. Potter & Potter estimates the oversize vintage poster at $1,000 to $1,500.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Let’s start by talking about Alexander–who he was, where he performed, and where he was in his career around 1915, when this poster was printed. He was at the peak of his powers. He was an American, no real city of birth, but a west coaster. I don’t believe he ever performed outside the U.S., but he certainly traveled across the U.S. over his career.
I understand that Alexander was a mentalist. Could you explain the difference between a magician and a mentalist? He did also do magic tricks. The thing that set him apart from other people was his ability to apparently read minds in such a believable way. He would answer questions people would write down and seal in an envelope–some deeply personal, some frivolous. It set him apart from other people who did the same kinds of tricks.
And the turban Alexander wears in the poster was part of his costume? It was also integral to his act. It was built for him for his mentalism routine. There were mechanical devices in the turban that he used to communicate with his assistants offstage. It was a way for backstage assistants to whisper in his ear. This was in the teens, the 20s, probably back a little further than that. It was pre-radio, a combination of induction coils and telephone technology. David Copperfield has the turban now on display in his place in Las Vegas. [While it doesn’t show the Alexander turban, this video gives a decent overview of Copperfield’s private museum.]
So Alexander was best known for answering questions from his audience? Hence “Alexander: The Man Who Knows”? The Q & A was one of his trademark routines. A dozen or a hundred people would write a question they were seeking an answer to. Without opening and reading the envelope, Alexander would answer the question and reveal personal details of the people in the audience. He’d give their names, the number of children they had, their address, and he’d answer the question in the envelope. [Only after we spoke did it occur to me that Johnny Carson must have been riffing off of Alexander with his “Carnac the Magnificent” routine on The Tonight Show.]
And I take it Alexander relied on his assistants to relay that information through the devices in the turban? It was more complicated than that. He used everything in his arsenal to acquire and deliver information. The material he was best known for made people believe he could actually read your mind.
Did Alexander use cold reading and hot reading? Yes, I would say that’s fair. I imagine there was a combination of the two. Probably a lot of hot reading.
I read the Wikipedia entry on Alexander and it seems pretty outlandish–killing four men? Marrying between seven to fourteen times? Escapes from jail? What information do we have about him that can be trusted? There’s a wonderful biography written by a man named David Charvet that draws on sources including diaries. David’s book is the final word on Alexander’s story. Killing four men… I’m not sure that’s ever been proven. Tax evasion, there are public records as far as that kind of thing. Polyamorous lifestyle, there’s not much doubt about that. Certainly his theatrical successes are provable. His is a tantalizing story and a lot is verifiable. Can I prove he murdered people? No. Can I prove he was an opportunist? Yeah.
Why is Alexander: The Man Who Knows such a powerful poster? I think it’s the striking simplicity of the design. His eyes follow you. It leaves open a lot of room for interpretation. It’s tantalizing as a stand-alone object. It grabs your attention. It’s still doing its job more than 100 years later.
And I take it Alexander is best known today for these Alexander: The Man Who Knows posters, and not the substance of his act? 100 percent. No one knows who this guy was in the real world. His biography is great, but it was never on the best-seller list.
How involved would he have been in the design of this Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster? He was probably intimately involved. If he was so involved as to modify the name of the printer to something more theatrical, he was probably involved in the design.
Alexander modified the name of the printer to something more theatrical? All his posters bear the mark of Av Yaga, a phony printing company in Bombay. No one has been able to determine who printed the poster. He did it [invented Av Yaga] to deliberately create a mystic aura of the east around him.
To extend the illusion? Yeah. He’s a gringo, but he’s wearing a turban and pretending to be privy to the secrets of the ages. This guy’s life should be a movie.
This Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster is big–108 inches by 80 1/2 inches. Where would it have been displayed? On the side of a building. Probably more than one poster if the bill poster had space. I’ve often wanted to buy one of these to put it up on the side of a building.
I don’t see a blank band on the top or the bottom of the Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster to tell people the venue and the dates of his performance. How did local promoters tell people when and where Alexander would appear? Occasionally they would overprint the theater and the date on posters like this one. Or the theater and the date would be posted adjacent to it.
Usually, with desirable vintage posters, only a few examples survive in varying states of condition. I understand that’s not the case with Alexander posters. Could you explain what happened? When Alexander retired, he was still a relatively young man. He sold his entire show to a man, Robert Nelson. A truck showed up at Nelson’s house and he thought it was a done deal. Then a second truck showed up with unused posters. Reportedly, there were several tons of paper. For years, he was selling posters, and eventually, they found their way into the hands of poster dealers.
Was there only this red background style of Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, or were there others? There were many different varieties. There were probably more of the red one-sheet size than most others.
The one we’re discussing is the red eight-sheet version. How rare is that? It’s less common. I’ve only had two or three in 12 years.
What condition is it in? A. About as good as it gets for a poster this size.
Is it in better condition than the other examples you’ve handled? Actually, yes.
What’s the world auction record for an Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster? For a one-sheet, I don’t remember. We sold a unique signed window card in December 2017 for $15,600. I think, because of its size, most collectors will stay away from it [this example], but I hope I’m proven wrong.
What is the Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster like in person? Almost overwhelming. Definitely hard to avoid. It’d be great in a bowling alley or a restaurant that has vibrant ambience. It’s kind of a traffic stopper.
Why will this poster stick in your memory? His life should be a movie. He was a bootlegger, a tax-evader, a bigamist, a mentalist, the list goes on and on. And it’s a great poster with a great aesthetic. Alexander understood how to sell the sizzle and the steak.
How to bid: The oversize Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster is lot 538 in the Vintage Posters sale taking place at Potter & Potter on January 25, 2020.
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Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a Daisy and Violet Hilton poster from the conjoined twins’ vaudeville years, 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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