What you see: A demon’s head card trick device replica created circa 2000 by the late Rüdiger Deutsch. Potter & Potter estimates it at $6,000.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Who was Rüdiger Deutsch? He started out as a pastry chef in Germany. When he met his wife, Ute, he became a photographer, because that was her family business. He was not a professional magician though he appeared on numerous European shows in the 1980s with his wife as Bellchini XIII. He took all the props he collected and used them in the act. He put it together with style and panache. It was kind of surprising how good it was. The tricks really worked.
So his magic collection was a working collection? They weren’t just museum pieces. He put them to use in the show. If he couldn’t find an original trick [device], he made it. A lot of things in the auction are things he constructed based on photographs, catalogs, descriptions, and occasionally, the item itself.
Do we know how Rüdiger Deutsch came to build the demon’s head card trick device? I don’t know specifically, but it’s modeled on pictures in a classic book of Victorian magic called Hoffman’s Modern Magic, from 1876. One of the most fascinating and interesting illustrations in the book are the demon’s head. The cover of the auction catalog is kind of an homage to the way the demon’s head is pictured in the book.
Do we know how long it took him to build the demon’s head card trick device? No.
Did he work alone, or did he have assistants? He had his limitations. He would hire someone to do something he was unable to do. When he needed help, he got it.
Was the demon’s head card trick device part of the routine Rüdiger Deutsch performed on European television in the 1980s? Not this piece, no. I’m sure he demonstrated it, but in what venue, I don’t know. But it set Rüdiger apart in many ways–he could use these things, and he did. He was an entertainer, a performer who put these pieces to work. A lot of collectors buy pieces with no intent of performing with them. Rüdiger was not that guy.
How far back does the principle behind the demon’s head card trick device go? Is it as old as card tricks themselves? No, I don’t think it’s as old as card tricks. The first reference is in Hoffman, but the devices were built years before that.
How common were devices such as this demon’s head card trick device in the late 19th century? They were available for purchase in catalogs of the Victorian era. Dealers offered the items for sale, but they were built to order. They were one of the more expensive things in those catalogs. They were kind of like automata in that way.
Did the devices take other shapes, or were they usually in the form of a demon’s head? Typically, yes, they were a demon or a satyr’s head. I know of one built as a teddy bear, which is just bizarre.
How would a magician use it in his or her act? The cards are chosen and returned to the deck. The magician puts the whole deck in the mouth of the figure. The demon looks around, moves his jaw, and spits out one of the chosen cards. When another person from the audience says, “I picked one too, where’s my card?” it pops out of his head.
How does the demon’s head card trick device work? It’s activated with levers at the bottom of the base, at the back. Different control levers operate the eyes, the mouth, and the release of the card. There are other versions that are controlled by clockwork. This is manually operated–it’s manual in the sense of pushing a button or pulling a lever to operate it. This is kind of like a glorified, creepy, masterful ventriloquist’s figure in some ways.
What advantage does this demon’s head card trick device give to a magician? Why use this instead of doing card tricks without an expensive device? It offers you a different type of presentation, a different type of entertainment than someone just finger-flinging. It’s the difference between a reading of Hamlet on the street versus going to the Globe Theater and watching the Royal Shakespeare Company–bare bones versus all the bells and whistles.
This demon’s head card trick device is described as a “faux automaton”. Is that because it has no clockwork? Correct, and it’s operated by a human being.
What is the device like in person? It’s imposing, but also, on close examination, it’s readily apparent that it’s the work of someone who really knew what they were doing, in terms of the painting, the finish, the fabric, the mechanism. It’s a sight to see. You’re not going to buy it at Target for a Halloween display. It’s really something special.
How does Deutsch’s circa 2000 replica compare to demon’s head card trick devices that date to the late 19th century? In some ways, it’s better. There’s less to go wrong. You don’t have to be so nervous about handling it. If it was Victorian era, it could triple or quadruple in price.
I don’t want to say it’s beautiful, but… it’s charismatic. It’s charismatic, magnetic, certainly attractive. It’s evident that a true craftsman who took pride in his work made it. The guy who took over Rüdiger’s photo studio from him said that he searched forever for German newspapers that were contemporary to the era [to use in the papier-mâché].
Just how exacting was Deutsch in creating this replica? Rüdiger did it the way they used to. This is a guy who never used a Phillips head screwdriver because Phillips head screwdrivers weren’t invented until the 1930s. He didn’t buy an 1876 lathe to turn metal, but it’s close to what they’d have during that era. The device shows a level of detail that’s not on mass-produced items.
What’s your favorite detail on this demon’s head card trick device? The paint. Every strand of hair is painted in, within reason. It brings it to life. It sounds strange, but it’s true. And it also brings the illustrations in Hoffman’s Modern Magic to life. It looks like the book almost exactly.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? Because it looked better in person when I went to Germany to pack up the collection than I would have expected when I saw the pictures. The aesthetics, the quality of construction, the condition exceeded my expectations. It’s a superior object.
Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.
Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a group of Diane Arbus photographs owned by their subject, albino sword-swallower Sandra Reed; 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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