What you see: A circa 1900s Harry Houdini postcard depicting the legendary magician in chains. The address side bears a stamp from the Harry Houdini Collection. Potter & Potter estimates the vintage postcard at $1,500 to $2,500.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Houdini was photographed many, many, many times during the course of his career. Why is this image such a standout? I mean, when I think of Houdini, I think of this picture. It’s a combination of beefcake, magic, metaphor, hardware, and really, kind of… all the things Houdini stands for, rolled into one photo.
Other photographs exist of Houdini in chains, but fully clothed. Why is this one more powerful than those? It’s emblematic of his entire career. He’s not just a handsome guy in a photo studio. It’s a genre-setting image, an iconic pose and scene.
Do we know whose idea it was for Houdini to have these pictures taken? Was it him, or did someone else make the suggestion? My guess is it’s Houdini. He was a guy with a very carefully crafted image. Early in his career, he got help from [vaudeville theater owner and booking agent] Martin Beck. Was Beck standing there at the photo shoot? I doubt it. But when Houdini realized something was working, he didn’t walk, he ran in that direction. It was a theme he must have understood, because he came back to it throughout his career. In one of his films, Terror Island, he’s basically just wearing a loincloth.
Why might Houdini have wanted to pose for these photos? What do they do for him that a fully clothed shot does not? He posed for both, of course. He understood every aspect of what that meant in the sense that it might have been a little bit scandalous. He was definitely pushing a boundary there, and stirring up interest–he’s not just shackled, he’s basically undressed. It’s titillating, but it had the added effect of proving that he was not hiding anything and he was able to escape the chains through his ability alone.
It looks like Houdini posed for the photo in Holland in September 1903. Did he run any risks in having them taken? They seem racy now. I imagine they might have been scandalous then. Were they? I’m not really clear on that. It’s not clear to me what the reaction would have been. It was not considered pornography. I don’t know if we’re casting a certain amount of modern inference over something that’s not as scandalous as we think. There’s a Houdini poster showing him performing an escape from prison in Amsterdam, and he’s underclothed. If the poster was acceptable enough to print and stick up on a building… maybe he was able to cross some border of decency and get away with it.
Are the chains Houdini poses with for this photo actual, no-kidding chains of the sort from which he escaped, or were the chains chosen solely for how they would look on camera? They were definitely functional. Remember, by this point, Houdini is performing challenge escapes on a regular basis. [Theater-goers] were allowed to bring their own handcuffs and restraints. Houdini was making a challenge–‘Lock me up in your cuffs, and I’ll escape.’ Were these the things he was escaping from? 100 percent. My guess is he provided them to the photographer. No doubt similar things were tossed at him, quite literally, in public appearances.
Do we have any notion of how Houdini used this image, outside of the postcard and the Amsterdam poster? And would he have printed the postcard with the intent of selling it as a souvenir? I’m not sure that he did. It seems unlikely. If there was a handbill or a flyer that used this image, it wouldn’t surprise me.
This postcard bears a stamp that reads “Harry Houdini Collection”. What was the Harry Houdini Collection? Would that have been his personal collection? Yes, it was probably owned by him. I understand it [the stamp] was put there by his wife, to prove that it was his.
So it was Houdini’s own archival copy? Or one of many in his collection.
Do we know how the postcard left the Harry Houdini Collection? We don’t, but it could have been given away, or it could have been sold. Things started leaving Houdini’s family’s possession quite quickly after he died. There was tremendous interest in Houdini, and a lot of souvenir hunters out there, looking for things.
I take it that Houdini had quite the personal library? He absolutely never saw a piece of paper that he didn’t like. Thank goodness for that.
How rare is this Houdini postcard? I’ve probably seen it half a dozen times.
Can you quantify what the presence of the Harry Houdini Collection stamp adds to the value of the postcard? I don’t think there’s ever been any doubt about it being a beautiful, authentic postcard, but let’s say ten percent.
Is this image of Houdini in chains more sought-after than other images that show him bound or escaping his bonds? These things speak to different people for different reasons. The iconic nature of the image helps this one.
But people prefer images of Houdini actively escaping over other images of him? Yeah, but images that people haven’t seen can do well. Last December, we had a postcard of Harry and Bess that did well because it was unusual, and people hadn’t seen it. It sold for $2,600.
What condition is the Houdini postcard in? Lovely. I could do without the little tape marks on the back, but it’s nice.
How does this image of Houdini speak to the larger themes his work expressed and evoked, and which set him apart from other magicians? How does it capture the promise of, and the yearning for, escape from bondage? To play an amateur Dr. Freud here–Houdini was a diminutive guy, an immigrant to these shores, and he found a way to beat whatever was thrown at him. That’s a pretty powerful metaphor. It’s a concept that resonates even in modern times.
Images are courtesy of Potter & Potter.
Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about an oversize Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, 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.
A couple of the links included above come from Wild About Houdini, an excellent blog by John Cox which is more than worthy of your time.
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