Update: Magician Johnny Thompson’s customized set of cups and balls sold for $14,400.
What you see: Magician Johnny Thompson’s cups and balls set. Potter & Potter estimates it at $2,000 to $4,000.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Who was Johnny Thompson, and what made him stand out from his magician peers? Whatever the job required, he was not only capable, but supremely capable. He was a general practitioner of magic, in a sense. He could do it all–trade shows, amusement parks, Las Vegas stages, cabaret, the Playboy club circuit–and he really could do it well.
I understand he was good at both close-up magic and stage magic, and that’s relatively rare? Thompson was an extremely talented close-up performer, but his stage act is what everybody knew him for, and which he did the most: The Great Tomsoni and Company.
Being good at both close-up and stage magic… is that the magician’s version of being ambidextrous? Do many magicians do both? More than you’d think, but usually, you find your strength and stick with it. Not many are at the level that Johnny Thompson was.
How important was the cups and balls routine to Johnny Thompson’s act? It was one of his signature pieces. He managed to relate the stories of the people who influenced his magic and paid tribute to them during the performance.
And how important is the cups and balls routine within the history of magic? It’s vital. It’s the… what would a good analogy be? It is the standard. People often say a magician can be judged by his facility with this routine. This is the raw stuff, vital stuff as far as magic is concerned. If you can master the routine, you truly have arrived. If you can develop your own cups and balls routine at a masterful level, it sets you in another class.
Do we know when the Johnny Thompson cups were made? I don’t. They were obviously made after the Charlie Miller cups were first put on the market, because they’re a modification of a commercially available product. I guess the 60s or the 70s. I don’t have an exact date.
Do we know who or what company made the Johnny Thompson cups? I don’t. The cups themselves are by Magic Inc., which was and still is a shop in Chicago. The cups were copper. Who silver-plated them and engraved them for him, I don’t know.
He didn’t leave behind any notes about when and who modified the cups for him? Not that we’ve been able to find. Even in the book about Johnny Thompson’s life, I don’t believe it mentions who the engraver or the silver-plater was.
And I take it that the balls and the imitation lemons are probably from Magic Inc.? It’s hard to know. The lemons are some sort of latex or rubber. They’re solid. He kept performing until the year he passed away. He could have added [new sets of balls and lemons] at any time.
The cups were originally all-copper. Why might Johnny Thompson have had them silver-plated? Does the contrast of the silver outside and copper inside make the routine easier to perform, or more interesting to watch? I don’t think it has any effect on the actual trick as performed or viewed by an audience. He was paying homage to Dai Vernon, who had his own spectacular engraved set of cups–it was a tip of the hat to him.
The lot notes say that Johnny Thompson “paid tribute to his forebears: Max Malini, Pop Krieger, Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, and Jacob Daley” in his routine. How did he do that? Those were people, some he knew and some he didn’t, who shaped the way that the trick was done in the 19th and 20th centuries. He swept them together into a narrative about these men. He actually performed as them. He would assume their stance, their posture, their voices, and perform the routine as if he were them. His imitation of Dai Vernon was very, very funny. [A circa 1979 video shows Thompson performing the cups and balls, celebrating each man in turn. The cups and balls performance starts at 2:13, but a close-up shot at 3:33 makes it clear that Thompson is not using the set in the auction.]
It looks like the Johnny Thompson cups are engraved with Egyptian hieroglyphs. Do the hieroglyphs carry a message? Can they be translated? Or are they just decorative? I have not attempted to translate them, but for years it was assumed an Egyptian tomb showed men performing the cups and balls. [That theory] has been discredited in the last 20 years or so. They’re probably doing something else. But the cups and balls is an ancient feat, and one of the most fundamental magic tricks there is. Some postulate that it’s the first trick. There’s no way to state that with ultimate certainty, but it’s a pretty basic trick, and certainly, people performed it in ancient times, if not in Egyptian times.
When this set of cups and balls was customized, the Egyptian tomb was believed to show people performing the earliest known magic trick. Are the hieroglyphs on the Johnny Thompson cups the same as those on the wall of that tomb? They do not appear to be. They appear to be entirely different. They probably are Egyptian hieroglyphs. They look entirely authentic. But they’re not the ones that people thought for years were men performing the cups and balls.
Was this Johnny Thompson’s favorite set of cups and balls? Did he usually perform with it? He would have used it all the time, but I don’t know if it was his favorite. Certainly, it was one of his favorite effects, and it was one of his signature pieces.
I understand there was or is a second set of Johnny Thompson cups and balls. Do we know where it is? There was a second set, but it’s a different shape. I don’t know where it is.
The Johnny Thompson cups and balls set appears in his 2018 two-volume book, The Magic of Johnny Thompson. Does that make the set more interesting to collectors? I think it does, a fair amount. Here’s his signature piece, recorded for all posterity in the book. He’s literally teaching you how to do the routine [with this set]. I think it adds quite a lot.
What is the Johnny Thompson cups and balls set like in person? Are there details that the camera doesn’t capture? There’s a functionality to them, but also an aesthetic interest. They’re not just plain cups, and they are substantial.
Penn and Teller are the filter through which I view magic, and they do a cups and balls routine with red Solo cups and clear plastic cups… It’s interesting to note that Thompson worked with them on, essentially, every routine in [their] show. He’s the third man, so to speak. Thompson was behind the scenes, contributing to the art form. He developed material for Criss Angel, Mat Franco, and Lance Burton. He was the guy you could count on. His list of credits could literally fill a book.
Do you perform the cups and balls routine? Have you tried performing with the Johnny Thompson cups and balls set? I haven’t tried doing it with this set. When I considered myself an entertainer, I did do the cups and balls, but those kinds of things are best left to the professionals.
Have you spoken with others who have had a chance to work with the Johnny Thompson cups and balls set? Before the COVID-19 crisis closed the office, we had a few magicians here who had a chance to look at the cups. Their response was visceral. It certainly got a rise out of them. They were definitely affected by them. They’re little talismans.
Have you sold sets of cups and balls that belonged to any of the five magicians Johnny Thompson included in his routine? We’ve sold more than one set that Dai Vernon owned, but the silver-engraved set that’s so famous is held by a private collection. And we’ve sold cups and balls from Pop Krieger.
Why will this set of Johnny Thompson cups and balls stick in your memory? I’m in a curious position, personally. I know people whose material I sell. Johnny Thompson gave a lecture for magicians in Chicago in April 2018, after his book came out. Afterward, he came up to me, gave me a hug and a kiss, and said, “If anything happens to me, you sell this stuff and make sure my wife gets the money.” Now here it is, happening. It’s very different from getting a letter from an estate or an institution. I am by no means one of Johnny Thompson’s great friends. but we were friends. That’s why it will stick in my memory. He entertained me with the cups and balls like he entertained tens of thousands of people. It’s poignant and bizarre at the same time.
Images are courtesy of Potter & Potter.
Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a vintage Harry Houdini postcard from the magician’s personal collection, 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.
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