Update: The 1876 P.T. Barnum sideshow poster advertising ‘Captain Costentenus, The Greek Albanian, Tattooed from Head to Foot,’ sold for $8,610.
What you see: An 1876 poster advertising the P. T. Barnum attraction, ‘Captain Costentenus, The Greek Albanian, Tattooed from Head to Foot.’ Potter & Potter estimates it at $4,000 to $5,000.
We live in a world where the barista who takes your coffee order has an amazing sleeve. Just how weird was a tattooed man in the late 19th century? “Well, he was exhibited in a sideshow with Siamese twins, the bearded lady, and midgets. This was not an everyday occurrence,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter. “I’m not an expert on tattoo history, but I’d say he’s one of the most famous [tattooed men].”
Would women have been allowed to see Captain Costentenus? Would he have appeared under a sideshow tent, or at Barnum’s dime museum, or both? And would he have just sat there and given his spiel, or did he do tricks as well? Yes, both, and his drawing power as a fully tattooed man was strong enough that he’d have only had to sit there, as exposed as decency would allow, and tell his story. “He would have had a little speech that he would give, a short lecture, real or imaginary, on his background, to stir up the imaginations of the people who were viewing him,” he says. “I think he retired wealthy.”
The poster says his appearance was changed “…in Chinese tartary as punishment for engaging in rebellion against the king.” That’s crap, right? Not true? “We’ll say he took liberties with the truth,” Fajuri says, adding, “I could see tattoos being used as punishment, certainly if they’re on the face. There might be a grain of truth in there, in the same way that the first person Barnum exhibited was old, but not 175 years old.”
Did Captain Costentenus set the template for what tattooed people in sideshows should look like? “No. They generally did not have their faces done,” he says. “Even today, that’s pretty extreme.”
But if his face is tattooed, why does Captain Costentenus also have a full, bushy beard? “I don’t know!” he says, laughing. “Maybe it’s a cultural thing. He’s Albanian.”
Did P.T. Barnum invent or popularize tattooed people as sideshow attractions? “Barnum had a lot of people working for him, and a lot of people copied him,” Fajuri says. “He set the standard for all these kinds of showmen.”
Just how rare is this Captain Costentenus poster? “Two months ago, Swann sold one. I don’t think it had an imprint [that says ‘P.T. Barnum’] at the top. It got $6,750 on an estimate of $800 to $1,200, Until I saw the one at Swann, I thought this might be the only one. It may be the only one with the Barnum imprint,” he says, adding, “It was custom made for this performer. Stock posters were a thing, but this a portrait of this person, custom made for them.”
Does the P.T. Barnum name add to the poster’s value? “Sure. It’s like the name ‘sterling’ on silver. He’s the guy who’s the godfather of all of this. Let’s hope it adds a premium,” he says. “No one has ever sold one [a Captain Costentenus poster] with the Barnum name on it. I don’t think it’s going to hurt it.”
And it was already bound to do well regardless, because there’s an eager contingent that collects vintage images of tattooed people… “Yes. You assess correctly. Those people are very actively interested in the subject,” he says. “Let’s hope that makes it a cross-collectible.”
What else makes this poster memorable? “We’ve sold a lot of weird things over the years, and we’ve never had anything like it,” Fajuri says. “In a business where we sell odd and unusual things, this is in the top twenty, top twenty-five things we’ve offered.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.