A Magician Automaton from Sleuth Could Sell for $60,000

A circa 1925-1930 magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, which starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It stands 56 1/2 inches tall and performs eight movements.

What you see: A circa 1925-1930 magician automaton built in Paris that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, which starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It stands 56 1/2 inches tall and performs seven movements. Potter & Potter estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

I wanted to start by asking why so many automata have a magic theme. How much overlap is there between magic trick designers and designers of automata? Why do automata fit well within the realm of performative magic? I guess I’d say because by nature, they’re magical objects, so they lend themselves to performing magic tricks. How they work, why they work–it’s all a wonder-making proposition. Magic and automata have kind of gone hand in hand for centuries.

What, if anything, do we know about why this automaton was made? Also, who might have purchased or commissioned this piece—what sort of person was likeliest to buy something like this when it was new? I don’t have the name in front of me, but he [the person who ordered it] had a number of commissions from JAF [the Parisian company believed to have built this automaton]. He wanted something special. It’s larger than many others out there. I think he was interested in automata. I don’t think he was a magician at all.

Is it reasonable to assume that this automaton was a custom commission, given its size and the number of movements it performs? Or are automata generally created as one-offs? There are catalogs of automata going back over a century. In the sale, we have a peacock that walks around, spreads its feathers, and keeps walking. In the Roullet & Decamps catalog, it was offered in three different sizes. That doesn’t mean there was a storage room that had 500 of each [size] sitting on the shelves. [The catalog said], ‘Here’s what we can do for you.’ They’d build them as they got orders, or they’d build six and when they ran out, they’d build six more.

The magician automaton from Sleuth, shown in full and in profile.

But would this magician automaton have been custom made, judging by its size and the number of movements it performs? I don’t think the movements point to that, but the size and the finish point to it being a custom commission. There are automata that are similarly complex or a lot more complex. It’s large and finely finished. I’m sure it was built to the specifications of the customer.

Why might someone have commissioned a large automaton such as this one? I believe this was for a private collector, but many were meant to be in shop windows, something to attract attention. It was a business expense, but it was an employee who required no salary. Hopefully people in the pre-television era would stop and be fascinated by what they saw.

How do we know this was built in Paris between 1925 and 1930? I was given the information by the consigner. Between his research and the [expertise of the] person who was working on his automata, I believe that’s how they pieced it together.

Does its large size–it stands almost five feet tall–hint at how it might have been used? And would its size have been harder to make than most automata? It’s perfect for use in a film, of course, because it’s a background player. I don’t think its size made it harder to build. I think it made it easier to build. There’s just more room [to hide the works].

The lot notes for the automaton from Sleuth say it has eight movements. Is that a lot for an automaton? And what are the movements? It’s on the higher end. I don’t mean to put it down–it’s certainly a complex mechanism. What I mean to say is it’s not playing checkers with anyone. It’s not elaborate. [Fajuri later corrects the total to seven movements, which include: moving its head up and down; moving its head back and forth; moving its lips; moving its eyes; an arm moving a wand; an arm moving a cone; and items changing under the table. If you wanted to count this last as a separate movement for every object the magician automaton produces, it would add several to the total. You can see the automaton performing in this video.]

But the more movements there are, the more chances that something will break or go wrong… Absolutely, the more complex it is, the more complex it is. But in Paris at the time, certainly [the first owner] had a choice of people in a three-mile radius to fix it. They were in spitting distance of each other.

A closeup of the magician automaton from Sleuth shows the figure lifting a cap to reveal a white rabbit sitting on the tabletop.

Does the magician automaton from Sleuth still perform all its movements? Yes.

Does it perform the movements in a set order, or can you choose which ones it does? It’s a set order, as is the case with most automata.

What can we tell by looking about how difficult it was to make? By watching it from the outside, you can’t tell anything, which is the point.

How original is this magician automaton from Sleuth? And how unusual is it for a nearly hundred-year-old automaton to retain its fabric elements–its original costume and turban? Earlier examples in the [August 24 auction] catalog are more remarkable for retaining their clothes. It had things that needed tending to when [the consigner] bought it. It got a tune-up and a polishing as opposed to an entirely new “chassis”. But we’ve sold automata that have been missing 50 percent of their works.

The magician automaton from Sleuth, shown lifting a wizard's cap.

Do any of the symbols on the front and the top of the table mean anything? Are they just gibberish? I believe they’re gibberish. They’re not recognizable to me.

What, if anything, do we know about how this automaton was chosen to appear in the film Sleuth? We don’t really have additional information.

Do we know if the filmmakers tweaked the automaton for the movie, or built a backup model? Not that we’re aware of.

What’s it like in person? It’s scary. He’s not smiling. He has a furrowed brow, and a stern, serious look. It’s the kind of thing where if you walk into the gallery before you turn on the lights and [you] feel someone standing there. It’s kind of scary.

Does it make noise? It’s not all that noticeable, but you do hear the mechanics working. It’s not distracting.

The magician automaton from Sleuth, shown head-on, about to lift a wizard's cap from a table carved with mysterious symbols.

What’s your favorite detail of the magician automaton from Sleuth? You mentioned it already. It’s the carving in the table. It shows an extra level of care that the builder went to to make it special. It adds an extra level of quality and craft to what could be a plain, wooden table, or could have had a cloth thrown over it. It adds to the charm, and adds a mysterious element to it.

Is it heavy? Yeah. It’s not 500 pounds or anything, but it requires a few people to move it.

How did you arrive at the $40,000 to $60,000 estimate? It was difficult. It was at Skinner in 2008 and sold for $40,000, which was a help. Like a lot of things we sell, there’s not a huge track record to compare it to. We seem to be the place that writes the books on a lot of things we sell. The Skinner auction record was the only one we could find.

How do other magician automata you’ve handled compare to this magician automaton from Sleuth? It’s the largest, and on the auction day, it may be the most expensive we’ve ever sold. Sleuth was nominated for four Academy Awards. It was a pretty serious film with well-known actors. Laurence Olivier was no slouch. It’s fair to say more people saw it in the film than ever saw it in a store window.

So it’s in the upper ranks? I’d say so, yeah. The way it does its tricks is amazing in its own right. Other automata in the auction do similar tricks, but when you combine that with its history, its size, and its aesthetics, it’s certainly right up there. It’s got a lot going for it.

How to bid: The automaton from Sleuth is lot 45 in Automata: Life and Other Illusions, taking place August 24, 2019 at Potter & Potter.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Follow Potter & Potter on Instagram and Twitter.

In case you missed it above, here’s film of the magician automaton in action.

Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about 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 $9,000a 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.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

SOLD! The Malling-Hansen “Writing Ball,” An Example of the First Commercial Typewriter, Sold For (Scroll Down to See)

A Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, shown in three-quarter view. Its semi-circular keyboard appears above its curved typing surface.

Update: The Malling-Hansen “Writing Ball” sold for €100,000, or about $111,600.

What you see: A Malling-Hansen “Writing Ball,” the first commercially produced typewriter, circa the 1870s or so. Auction Team Breker estimates it at €70,000 to €90,000, or $78,000 to $100,000.

The expert: Nick Hawkins, U.K. representative for Auction Team Breker, on behalf of founder Uwe Breker.

Who was Rasmus Malling-Hansen and how did he come to create the Writing Ball? Was he an inventor, or is this the only thing he made? He was a Danish pastor and also the director of the Royal Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Copenhagen. He didn’t have an inventor’s background. He designed it with his students in mind, to help them “speak with their fingers.” That was the objective of making the Writing Ball.

A Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, shown in profile.

The lot notes say Malling-Hansen claimed those who used the Writing Ball could achieve a speed “easily two to three times as fast as normal,” presumably meaning “normal” was handwriting speed. Was the device able to do that? I’m not sure about it compared to handwriting, but compared to other machines that came later, yes, and for two reasons. One, its spherical shape made the positioning of the fingers easier and more natural. Two, the placement of the keys, with the vowels at the left hand and the consonants at the right, made the schematics of the machine easier to grasp. And it was a relatively compact machine compared to typewriters that came later. It also had spring-loaded keys, so the pressure needed to type was less–you didn’t have to work as hard.

What innovations did the Writing Ball introduce that became standard features on later typewriters? The main ones were the automatic carriage return, the space bar, the bell to signal the end of the line, carbon copies, and visible writing–when you lift the hemisphere away from the curvature [the beige-colored curved piece below the keyboard] you can see what you wrote on the paper.

Did the Writing Ball debut all these features, or was it the first to bring them together? It was the first one to put them together. His machine was really revolutionary when you look back on it now. It was almost too modern for its time.

An angle on a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, that shows the undersides of several of its keys.

How many Writing Balls were made? Do we know? And is the serial number on this one, 103, a clue that helps us figure out how many were made? Yes, it is a clue. Mr. Breker estimates 180 were produced, and 35 survive.

Do we know how long the production run was? In the space of ten to 12 years, and they were all made to order. You couldn’t walk into a shop and buy one.  It took a while [to make one]. Friedrich Nietzche’s, I think, took nine months to be delivered. He ordered his quite late in the production cycle. He was a famous customer, but not a satisfied customer. There’s an article about how his was damaged on a trip to Geneva. He blamed the machine, but it was probably the roads or rails of the time.

How many Writing Balls has Auction Team Breker handled? Our electronic records start in 1999. Since then, we have sold six. Mr. Breker thinks that before 1999, we sold another six.

What’s the auction record for a Writing Ball? Was it set at Auction Team Breker? Yes. The highest result was around €150,000 [roughly $168,000].

Does this Writing Ball work? It does, yes. I haven’t used this particular machine, but I have used another.

An overhead view of a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter. The semi-circular keyboard appears above its curved typing surface.

What does it sound like when in use? Does it sound like the typewriters we’re familiar with from 20th-century movies and TV shows? It has a softer sound than the classic typewriter because the materials are lighter. Brass is softer than steel. I’d say it’s more mellow than the classic clacking of typewriter keys.

And it’s been in the family of the original recipient until now? As far as we know, it’s been in the family since it was originally owned.

How often do Writing Balls come up at auction? It seems like they appear every two to three years. I would say so. They are very rare, but they’ve made some big prices in the last two to three years. That’s brought more to market.

What is it like in person? I think one of the things that’s remarkable about the design is it’s very organic, the curvature of the top and the keys. The things you see in person are the complexity of the appearance, combined with the function. And it has a beautiful patina. It has a very soft look, like the lacquer you see on an antique microscope or telephone. And it’s not been restored, which you really appreciate it when you look at it. All the keys are original as well. This is all-original.

So, no parts have been replaced? As far as we know, it’s all-original and functional.

Is that unusual? It’s quite unusual, and it’s probably [survived so well] because it’s been in one family. When something comes to market from one family or collection, the condition is usually very good.

A side view of a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, that shows the keyboard pulled up and away from its curved typing surface.

The lot notes describe the Writing Ball as being in “excellent general condition.” What does that mean here? Auction Team Breker uses a coding system. Mr. Breker coded this as a 2-2. The first 2 means very good, one step down from mint. I don’t think any antique typewriter is mint. The other 2 means it’s in fully functional condition. If you’re inclined, you can write a letter on it. It’s better if it doesn’t need to be restored. In reality, most Malling-Hansen Writing Balls are in museums or advanced private collections. Another element with antique metal is the brass lacquer. The original patina is very sensitive to touch. To preserve it in good condition, you shouldn’t type–maybe a once-a-year special demonstration is enough.

Why will this Writing Ball stick in your memory? They’re all special. This one has a nice family history, which makes it stand out, but they’re all special in their own way. They all have something different about them.

Anything else you’d like to point out about this piece? In the catalog description is a translation of a sonnet that Nietzsche wrote about the machine in frustration: “The writing ball is a thing like me:/ Made of iron yet easily twisted on journeys/Patience and tact are required in abundance/As well as fine fingers to use us.” It was nice to include.

It’s funny to see that Nietzche got frustrated by his typewriter in the 19th century. Machines seem to possess a life of their own. They don’t do what we want when we need them the most. The great philosopher had similar problems as we have today with our laptops and iPhones. Modern technology and being alienated from technology probably goes back as long as people have had machines.

How to bid: The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball is lot 0076 in the 150th Science & Technology, Mechanical Music, and Toys auction taking place May 18, 2019 at Auction Team Breker in Koeln, Germany.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Auction Team Breker has a website.

There’s also a society devoted to Rasmus Malling-Hansen.

Images are courtesy of Auction Team Breker.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

A Seriously Steampunk Writing Ball, the First Commercially Produced Typewriter, Could Command $100,000 at Auction Team Breker

A Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, shown in three-quarter view. Its semi-circular keyboard appears above its curved typing surface.

What you see: A Malling-Hansen “Writing Ball,” the first commercially produced typewriter, circa the 1870s or so. Auction Team Breker estimates it at €70,000 to €90,000, or $78,000 to $100,000.

The expert: Nick Hawkins, U.K. representative for Auction Team Breker, on behalf of founder Uwe Breker.

Who was Rasmus Malling-Hansen and how did he come to create the Writing Ball? Was he an inventor, or is this the only thing he made? He was a Danish pastor and also the director of the Royal Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Copenhagen. He didn’t have an inventor’s background. He designed it with his students in mind, to help them “speak with their fingers.” That was the objective of making the Writing Ball.

A Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, shown in profile.

The lot notes say Malling-Hansen claimed those who used the Writing Ball could achieve a speed “easily two to three times as fast as normal,” presumably meaning “normal” was handwriting speed. Was the device able to do that? I’m not sure about it compared to handwriting, but compared to other machines that came later, yes, and for two reasons. One, its spherical shape made the positioning of the fingers easier and more natural. Two, the placement of the keys, with the vowels at the left hand and the consonants at the right, made the schematics of the machine easier to grasp. And it was a relatively compact machine compared to typewriters that came later. It also had spring-loaded keys, so the pressure needed to type was less–you didn’t have to work as hard.

What innovations did the Writing Ball introduce that became standard features on later typewriters? The main ones were the automatic carriage return, the space bar, the bell to signal the end of the line, carbon copies, and visible writing–when you lift the hemisphere away from the curvature [the beige-colored curved piece below the keyboard] you can see what you wrote on the paper.

Did the Writing Ball debut all these features, or was it the first to bring them together? It was the first one to put them together. His machine was really revolutionary when you look back on it now. It was almost too modern for its time.

An angle on a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, that shows the undersides of several of its keys.

How many Writing Balls were made? Do we know? And is the serial number on this one, 103, a clue that helps us figure out how many were made? Yes, it is a clue. Mr. Breker estimates 180 were produced, and 35 survive.

Do we know how long the production run was? In the space of ten to 12 years, and they were all made to order. You couldn’t walk into a shop and buy one.  It took a while [to make one]. Friedrich Nietzche’s, I think, took nine months to be delivered. He ordered his quite late in the production cycle. He was a famous customer, but not a satisfied customer. There’s an article about how his was damaged on a trip to Geneva. He blamed the machine, but it was probably the roads or rails of the time.

How many Writing Balls has Auction Team Breker handled? Our electronic records start in 1999. Since then, we have sold six. Mr. Breker thinks that before 1999, we sold another six.

What’s the auction record for a Writing Ball? Was it set at Auction Team Breker? Yes. The highest result was around €150,000 [roughly $168,000].

Does this Writing Ball work? It does, yes. I haven’t used this particular machine, but I have used another.

An overhead view of a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter. The semi-circular keyboard appears above its curved typing surface.

What does it sound like when in use? Does it sound like the typewriters we’re familiar with from 20th-century movies and TV shows? It has a softer sound than the classic typewriter because the materials are lighter. Brass is softer than steel. I’d say it’s more mellow than the classic clacking of typewriter keys.

And it’s been in the family of the original recipient until now? As far as we know, it’s been in the family since it was originally owned.

How often do Writing Balls come up at auction? It seems like they appear every two to three years. I would say so. They are very rare, but they’ve made some big prices in the last two to three years. That’s brought more to market.

What is it like in person? I think one of the things that’s remarkable about the design is it’s very organic, the curvature of the top and the keys. The things you see in person are the complexity of the appearance, combined with the function. And it has a beautiful patina. It has a very soft look, like the lacquer you see on an antique microscope or telephone. And it’s not been restored, which you really appreciate it when you look at it. All the keys are original as well. This is all-original.

So, no parts have been replaced? As far as we know, it’s all-original and functional.

Is that unusual? It’s quite unusual, and it’s probably [survived so well] because it’s been in one family. When something comes to market from one family or collection, the condition is usually very good.

A side view of a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, that shows the keyboard pulled up and away from its curved typing surface.

The lot notes describe the Writing Ball as being in “excellent general condition.” What does that mean here? Auction Team Breker uses a coding system. Mr. Breker coded this as a 2-2. The first 2 means very good, one step down from mint. I don’t think any antique typewriter is mint. The other 2 means it’s in fully functional condition. If you’re inclined, you can write a letter on it. It’s better if it doesn’t need to be restored. In reality, most Malling-Hansen Writing Balls are in museums or advanced private collections. Another element with antique metal is the brass lacquer. The original patina is very sensitive to touch. To preserve it in good condition, you shouldn’t type–maybe a once-a-year special demonstration is enough.

Why will this Writing Ball stick in your memory? They’re all special. This one has a nice family history, which makes it stand out, but they’re all special in their own way. They all have something different about them.

Anything else you’d like to point out about this piece? In the catalog description is a translation of a sonnet that Nietzsche wrote about the machine in frustration: “The writing ball is a thing like me:/ Made of iron yet easily twisted on journeys/Patience and tact are required in abundance/As well as fine fingers to use us.” It was nice to include.

It’s funny to see that Nietzche got frustrated by his typewriter in the 19th century. Machines seem to possess a life of their own. They don’t do what we want when we need them the most. The great philosopher had similar problems as we have today with our laptops and iPhones. Modern technology and being alienated from technology probably goes back as long as people have had machines.

How to bid: The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball is lot 0076 in the 150th Science & Technology, Mechanical Music, and Toys auction taking place May 18, 2019 at Auction Team Breker in Koeln, Germany.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Auction Team Breker has a website.

There’s also a society devoted to Rasmus Malling-Hansen.

Images are courtesy of Auction Team Breker.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

SOLD! A Brass Sleeve Holdout Device for Cheating at Cards Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

This brass sleeve holdout device by Will & Finck, dating to the 1880s, allowed the wearer to cheat at cards. When the player received a valuable card they wanted to save for a later hand, they'd touch the button that extends the device, surreptitiously tuck the choice card into the gripper, and then hit another button that pulled the card back up their sleeve. The card cheat would wear the device strapped to the underside of an arm, hidden beneath clothing. The photograph shows the device upside down.

Update: The Will & Finck circa 1880s brass sleeve holdout sold for $9,000.

What you see: A brass sleeve holdout device by Will & Finck, dating to the 1880s. Potter & Potter estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

Are Will and Finck real people, or are they made-up names, seeing as the company made gear for gamblers who want to cheat? And did the company make straightforward products, too? I assume they are [real people]. It was a pretty well-known business in San Francisco. They were best known as knife-makers.

How does a sleeve holdout work? Let’s say you play a hand and you see a card that will be useful down the line. The clip [shown above, holding the King of Spades card], which is called a thief, you pop it out of your sleeve with pressure on the lever [in the photo above, it is attached to the cuff and has a cross-hatch pattern on one end] and take it for later. You put it in the thief and it goes back in your sleeve. Let’s say you need the card. You put pressure on the lever. It will activate the device, and the tongs will come out of your sleeve. The knobs are where you attach the elastic [which eases the movement of the device]. One is directly behind the lever, and one is on the tongs themselves.

It looks uncomfortable to wear. Was it? It certainly required some getting used to. I imagine it might be like wearing an artificial leg–you strap a metal device to yourself with a tether under your clothes. In a way, it’s like a third hand. In some instances later in the 20th century, the sleeve holdout is called a third hand. I think we have an example in the auction. [Yes indeed, Potter & Potter have a circa 1960 holdout in the sale lineup.]

And the user would wear the device under his forearm? It depended on what you were wearing. It’s tough if you wear a shirt that has buttons on it [on the cuff]. You have to have clear passage out of your shirt. It’d have to be a bare arm under a jacket, or, and I don’t know anyone who did this, a shirt under a jacket. [Later Fajuri clarified: There were plenty of people who wore them over a shirt and under a jacket, but they had strategies to get the device to clear the cuff of the shirt or the opening of their sleeve.] It’s got to move swiftly and silently without hanging up or you’re a dead man, literally. [To point out something that might not be inherently clear–the photograph shows the device upside down.]

Did people use holdouts during card games? Yes. In many ways, it takes more guts and skill to use a holdout than to deal from the bottom of the deck. If you’re caught with a holdout, you have no defense. You literally have no defense.

Did anyone actually get caught using a holdout, for real? Plenty of people have used them. The technology has improved somewhat from what you see here. There are plenty of books filled with gambling lore, and stories of people being caught in the act of using a holdout are numerous. I saw a guy who did it professionally, and it took my breath away. If you’re skilled at using one of these things, it’s a miracle. Personally, I think you’ve got to have nerves of steel.

Did anyone running a card game pat players down before dealing? Seldom does the man exist who has the guts to use one of these things. If someone was particularly suspicious, yeah, you could do that. But anyone who takes the time and effort to use one of these things would take the time and effort to sneak it into a game. The amount of energy people expend to beat the system, cheating at cards, dice, et cetera–it boggles the mind. The ingenuity is considerable. Isn’t there an easier way to make a buck?

Are people using holdouts to cheat at cards today, right now? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Absolutely. I guy I knew once said, “I have to commit three felonies a week to keep my family fed.” He was an expert when it came to using a holdout.

Have you tried it on? No.

How long has the concept of the sleeve holdout been around? Does it predate the 1880s? I believe it does, but I’m not a subject matter expert. I’d have to defer to someone else. I don’t have an exact date in mind when something like this existed. Lot 151 in the auction, a rare book by F. R. Ritter, is the first to show a Jacob’s ladder-style sleeve holdout [like the one pictured above]. The book has sold for as much as $19,000. And it doesn’t hurt that all of these cheating strategies have been mythologized by movies set in the old West. Hollywood has done its part in creating the stories around dodges and subterfuges.

How rarely do antique sleeve holdouts appear at auction? We do them on the regular, but that doesn’t mean they’re common. Once you cross the 1900 mark, they’re slightly more available, which is not to say that any of it is easy to find. In our auctions, they appear about once a year, generally speaking.

How unusual is it to find one of this vintage that’s original and intact, as this one is? Is it rare? We sold a Will & Finck holdout last year for $10,000. [It was lot 249 in the May 19, 2018 auction.] In all our years of gambling auctions, it was the first Will & Finck we’ve sold. Their name is like sterling on silver–the highest quality. I’ve seen one or two others in personal collections.

The lot notes say this sleeve holdout was pictured in the section on cheaters in Time-Life’s 1978 Old West series of books, on page 124. How does that affect its value? A hardcore collector has that book and has ogled it for how long now? We’ve been fortunate to sell [items] from the book. It’s a lot of fun seeing things you’ve been dreaming of for decades and being the one to bring it back to market after all that time. [This is as close as I was able to get to finding a reproduction of page 124 online.]

How to bid: The Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout is lot 448 in Gambling Memorabilia: Featuring the Collection of Tom Blue, taking place March 30, 2019 at Potter & Potter.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Follow Potter & Potter on Instagram and Twitter.

Gabe Fajuri is a favorite on The Hot Bid. He’s talked about 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.

Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

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A Brass Sleeve Holdout–A Device for Cheating at Cards–Could Sell for $6,000

This brass sleeve holdout device by Will & Finck, dating to the 1880s, allowed the wearer to cheat at cards. When the player received a valuable card they wanted to save for a later hand, they'd touch the button that extends the device, surreptitiously tuck the choice card into the gripper, and then hit another button that pulled the card back up their sleeve. The card cheat would wear the device strapped to the underside of an arm, hidden beneath clothing. The photograph shows the device upside down.

What you see: A brass sleeve holdout device by Will & Finck, dating to the 1880s. Potter & Potter estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

Are Will and Finck real people, or are they made-up names, seeing as the company made gear for gamblers who want to cheat? And did the company make straightforward products, too? I assume they are [real people]. It was a pretty well-known business in San Francisco. They were best known as knife-makers.

How does a sleeve holdout work? Let’s say you play a hand and you see a card that will be useful down the line. The clip [shown above, holding the King of Spades card], which is called a thief, you pop it out of your sleeve with pressure on the lever [in the photo above, it is attached to the cuff and has a cross-hatch pattern on one end] and take it for later. You put it in the thief and it goes back in your sleeve. Let’s say you need the card. You put pressure on the lever. It will activate the device, and the tongs will come out of your sleeve. The knobs are where you attach the elastic [which eases the movement of the device]. One is directly behind the lever, and one is on the tongs themselves.

It looks uncomfortable to wear. Was it? It certainly required some getting used to. I imagine it might be like wearing an artificial leg–you strap a metal device to yourself with a tether under your clothes. In a way, it’s like a third hand. In some instances later in the 20th century, the sleeve holdout is called a third hand. I think we have an example in the auction. [Yes indeed, Potter & Potter have a circa 1960 holdout in the sale lineup.]

And the user would wear the device under his forearm? It depended on what you were wearing. It’s tough if you wear a shirt that has buttons on it [on the cuff]. You have to have clear passage out of your shirt. It’d have to be a bare arm under a jacket, or, and I don’t know anyone who did this, a shirt under a jacket. [Later Fajuri clarified: There were plenty of people who wore them over a shirt and under a jacket, but they had strategies to get the device to clear the cuff of the shirt or the opening of their sleeve.] It’s got to move swiftly and silently without hanging up or you’re a dead man, literally. [To point out something that might not be inherently clear–the photograph shows the device upside down.]

Did people use holdouts during card games? Yes. In many ways, it takes more guts and skill to use a holdout than to deal from the bottom of the deck. If you’re caught with a holdout, you have no defense. You literally have no defense.

Did anyone actually get caught using a holdout, for real? Plenty of people have used them. The technology has improved somewhat from what you see here. There are plenty of books filled with gambling lore, and stories of people being caught in the act of using a holdout are numerous. I saw a guy who did it professionally, and it took my breath away. If you’re skilled at using one of these things, it’s a miracle. Personally, I think you’ve got to have nerves of steel.

Did anyone running a card game pat players down before dealing? Seldom does the man exist who has the guts to use one of these things. If someone was particularly suspicious, yeah, you could do that. But anyone who takes the time and effort to use one of these things would take the time and effort to sneak it into a game. The amount of energy people expend to beat the system, cheating at cards, dice, et cetera–it boggles the mind. The ingenuity is considerable. Isn’t there an easier way to make a buck?

Are people using holdouts to cheat at cards today, right now? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Absolutely. I guy I knew once said, “I have to commit three felonies a week to keep my family fed.” He was an expert when it came to using a holdout.

Have you tried it on? No.

How long has the concept of the sleeve holdout been around? Does it predate the 1880s? I believe it does, but I’m not a subject matter expert. I’d have to defer to someone else. I don’t have an exact date in mind when something like this existed. Lot 151 in the auction, a rare book by F. R. Ritter, is the first to show a Jacob’s ladder-style sleeve holdout [like the one pictured above]. The book has sold for as much as $19,000. And it doesn’t hurt that all of these cheating strategies have been mythologized by movies set in the old West. Hollywood has done its part in creating the stories around dodges and subterfuges.

How rarely do antique sleeve holdouts appear at auction? We do them on the regular, but that doesn’t mean they’re common. Once you cross the 1900 mark, they’re slightly more available, which is not to say that any of it is easy to find. In our auctions, they appear about once a year, generally speaking.

How unusual is it to find one of this vintage that’s original and intact, as this one is? Is it rare? We sold a Will & Finck holdout last year for $10,000. [It was lot 249 in the May 19, 2018 auction.] In all our years of gambling auctions, it was the first Will & Finck we’ve sold. Their name is like sterling on silver–the highest quality. I’ve seen one or two others in personal collections.

The lot notes say this sleeve holdout was pictured in the section on cheaters in Time-Life’s 1978 Old West series of books, on page 124. How does that affect its value? A hardcore collector has that book and has ogled it for how long now? We’ve been fortunate to sell [items] from the book. It’s a lot of fun seeing things you’ve been dreaming of for decades and being the one to bring it back to market after all that time. [This is as close as I was able to get to finding a reproduction of page 124 online.]

How to bid: The Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout is lot 448 in Gambling Memorabilia: Featuring the Collection of Tom Blue, taking place March 30, 2019 at Potter & Potter.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

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Gabe Fajuri is a favorite on The Hot Bid. He’s talked about 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.

Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

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SOLD! A Piano-playing Automaton Commanded $11,000 at Bertoia

A piano-playing automaton, created by Gustave Vichy between 1890 and 1910.

Update: The Gustave Vichy piano-playing automaton sold for $11,000.

What you see: A piano-playing automaton, created by Gustave Vichy between 1890 and 1910. Bertoia Auctions estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.

What is an automaton? It’s a form of robot or proto-computer that’s designed to entertain. The machine executes a series of movements or acts in a specific order, such as performing a magic trick or riding a bicycle. Clock- and watchmakers naturally gravitate to building automata because many of them run on clockwork. If you have a cuckoo clock in your house, you own an automaton.

The expert: Jeanne Bertoia, proprietor of Bertoia Auctions.

This is described as a “Vichy” automaton because it was made by Gustave Vichy, a French designer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But why is it called a “Vichy Piano Watteau Automaton”? Is the “Watteau” a reference to the painter? The company catalog [which is in French] calls it “piano Watteau.” I suspect it probably has to do with the pastoral type of paintings Watteau was known for. If you look at the painting on the piano, the gold, it has a very Watteau feel.

And the figure kind of looks like a woman from a Watteau painting Yes, exactly. She’s very elaborate, with silk and lace and pearl jewelry. She has heeled shoes and stockings on. [Unfortunately, none of the photos of the lot show this.] She’s very elegant.

To when does the piano-playing automaton date? Probably 1890 to 1910, the turn of the last century. It was probably the later part of the 19th century. The peak of automata production was the mid-1800s into the 1900s. Automata were luxurious items. They had moving parts that were powered by clockwork, and they played only for about a minute.

How rarely do you find automata that have porcelain parts? It’s rarer, though it was done. There are others with porcelain parts, but most of them were papier-mâché. Some automata makers used parts from doll companies. You actually get a doll. This has a Jumeau porcelain head. Jumeau usually made French fashion dolls. The doll head is the most important part of the doll. The hands and the head are made of bisque porcelain.

Do we know how many other Vichy Watteau piano-playing automatons survive? Unfortunately, we don’t know. This is the first we’ve had the opportunity to handle, and we go back to 1986. There may be a few in some of the grander collections.

Does the piano-playing automaton have all the details and fittings it had when it was new? Can we know? We believe it’s all-original. It’s very well-taken-care-of and in generally excellent condition. It still works beautifully. The mechanism and the music functions well. In the [Vichy] catalog, it’s just a drawing. It looks the same. It has a different costume, but that doesn’t mean it was dressed differently. There was no mass-production clothing line then. A dress as elaborate as this would have been individually handmade.

Who would have been the audience for this piano-playing automaton? I’m guessing it wasn’t intended as a toy. It was probably for the newly rich. Again, it’s an elaborate, luxurious piece to own. It was not treated as a toy. It was treated as a piece of moving art.

What instrument is the figure playing? It’s a piano harp. I don’t know if it’s a real instrument. It looks pretty fanciful to me. I think those are original harp strings.

The lot notes for the automaton describe its condition as “excellent to pristine”. What does that mean in this context? It means that it’s all-original, the mechanism works, the music plays fine. Maybe there’s a little restoration to the clothing, which is very accepted.

Has it been restored, beyond touching up the dress? Not that we saw, no.

Will you post audio and video of the automaton playing the piano? Good question. We’ve been discussing it. We probably will put something on the website. We have at least a dozen different automata in the sale that are so unique.

The lot notes say that the music that the automaton plays “consists of four different ‘airs’,” which repeat. What are ‘airs’? And are any of the four pieces of music familiar to modern listeners? It’s a song, a tune, a piece of music. It’s French, it’s what they call it in the [Vichy] catalog. I don’t recognize the music. I can’t put a name to any of them.

How does the automaton move? Oh! The mechanism is fabulous! She has multiple movements. The hands gracefully move across the piano keys. Her chest breathes. The papier-mâché shoulder plate allows her to look like she’s breathing. She plays the piano, turns her head, puts her head up, and breathes in as if she’s breathing in beauty. Then she puts her head down and continues to play. That is her movement.

Have you seen other automata that simulate breathing? I haven’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are others. We haven’t had such an elegant doll figure as the main part of an automaton. We have had automata with lots of movement–this is just a different style. It almost falls into the doll world. It’s a beautiful doll, gracefully playing the piano.

Was this automaton intended for girls and women? I don’t think so. It’s just an elegant piece for the times. In today’s marketplace, doll collectors are very excited to get an automaton that has such a great doll. It stands on its own as an elegant, beautiful piece. If you had a daughter who plays the piano, it’d be a fabulous gift.

How to bid: The Vichy piano Watteau automaton is lot 272 in Bertoia Auctions’s Signature Sale on September 22, 2018.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Image is courtesy of Bertoia Auctions.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.