Jill Krementz Photo Journal: The Magical Collection of Ricky Jay

Featured image
Ricky Jay in his New York apartment adorned with Ricky’s homage to his muse, Houdini. On the coffee table you can see several copies of Jay’s Journal of Anomalies.
The master-showman magician, actor, scholar, special effects consultant and author was dubbed “the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive.”

Ricky Jay was known as a Magician’s Magician. I first saw him perform in his one man show, “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants” at the Second Stage Theater in 1994.

David Mamet and Ricky Jay.

Directed by his close friend David Mamet, the eight-week run sold out before it opened. For those who missed out on Ricky’s multiple-city stage performances, he can be seen in many of Mamet’s films including his part as a gambler in House of Games.

Stage and screen aside, Mr. Jay was a scholar — authoring books and journals. He was also a voracious collector of posters, pamphlets, rare books, and ephemera from the world of magic. We’re talking about a treasure trove of nearly ten thousand items.

Ricky Jay died in 2018 at the age of 72. Chrisann Verges, his widow, working with Selby Kiffer and his experts from Sotheby’s, spent months sorting through his incomparable collection selecting the nearly 2000 items bound for New York City.

Chrisann and Ricky.

Prior to the two-day auction of 634 lots on October 27th and 28th, Chrisann hosted a private party for their friends on the 4th floor of the auction house. Staring down from the walls were Harry Houdini, Max Malini, Charles Carter, Chung Ling Soo, Kosta, the Darley’s, Miss Baldwin and Matthias Buchinger.

It was, to be sure, a “now you see them but soon you won’t” evening as future bidders, worldwide, were ready to make all the items vanish and then, with a wave of their paddle, reappear in their own eccentric collections.

The final sales tally — a total of $3.8 million — surpassed its estimated value. The Jay/Verges house off Mulholland Drive is still packed to the gills with magical treasures.

Chrisann Verges, Ricky Jay’s widow, worked with Sotheby’s to organize the auction.
Married in 2002, Chris and Ricky shuttled back and forth between their house in Los Angeles and an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The large color lithograph of Charles Joseph Carter with the Devil is one of the most recognizable magic images of the Roaring Twenties.
The poster once hung on the wall of their dining room in Beverly Hills where Chrisann works as a producer.
Ricky’s lawyer Stan Coleman greets Chrisann.
Likely the earliest solo Houdini poster. Before he gained worldwide fame as an escape artist, Harry Houdini performed as a card magician in dime museums, burlesque shows, and circuses — most notably that of the Welsh Brothers.
According to Wild About Harry blogger John Cox, “When Houdini first performed in Paris in 1901, audiences were still unfamiliar with handcuffs (they were not yet used widely in France), so he received few challenges. It’s said his card work is what made him a hit in France.”
A self portrait by Matthias Buchinger (1674-1740), an extraordinary German artist, magician and entertainer. Buchinger has depicted himself standing on an embroidered cushion.
Only 29 inches tall and born without hands or lower legs, Buchinger was married four times, and fathered 14 children.
Despite his having small, finlike appendages for hands, Buchinger’s engravings were incredibly detailed. One such engraving, a self-portrait, was so detailed that a close examination of the curls of his hair revealed that they were in fact seven biblical psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, inscribed in miniature letters.
Ricky Jay’s extensive collection of Matthias Buchinger’s extraordinary microcalligraphy was on display at the Metropolitan Museum in 2016. He was also the subject of Ricky’s 11th book.
Patricia Marx, a staff writer for The New Yorker, with a Houdini poster from 1912.
Ricky Jay was profiled by Patty’s colleague. Mark Singer in the New Yorker (April 5, 1993).
The multi-talented Mr. Jay also wrote for the magazine (Annals of Gaming: The Story of Dice — December 11, 2000).
Chrisann with Jess Wu Calder and her husband Keith Calder — film and television producers whose recent feature, One Night in Miami, was an Amazon hit.
Ricky Jay’s collection of over 400 posters installed on the walls of the 4th floor.
Vitrines held the numerous rare books and pamphlets included in the auction.
My husband Kurt Vonnegut and I were ardent admirers of Ricky Jay. We attended many of his performances and loved his books, many of which are in our library.
Mac Norton performed for half a century in European music halls and vaudeville, spouting water and swallowing — and subsequently regurgitating — live frogs, goldfish, and turtles; opposition from the ASPCA kept the act from touring in the United States.
David Blaine, the contemporary magician and endurance performer, saw the present poster in Ricky Jay’s collection and was inspired to learn Mac Norton’s technique. In a moving homage, Blaine reprised the regurgitation of a living frog at Jay’s memorial service.
William Robinson is believed to have commissioned more than one hundred posters promoting his appearances disguised as Chung Ling Soo the conjurer and illusionist.
Susan Morris and Chrisann were college friends.
Bill Buchman and Marty Lebenson, former schoolmates of Ricky’s.
Robert Houdin was considered the father of modern magic. Pictorial folding fans were often handed out as a souvenir to the women in his audience.
If you look  carefully you can see a vignette of the throngs attending the performance and on the verso, vignettes of Houdin’s most famous tricks.
A wonderful poster for one of the premier mentalist acts of its day, in which the blindfolded Miss Baldwin, with a devil and an angel fighting for her attention, is prominently featured while Samri, dressed in Indian garb, is relegated to the side.
Also depicted, an audience of boisterous imps prepare their questions for Miss Baldwin: “How long will the war last”; “Who will win the Derby”; “Will I ever be rich”; “Who killed Mabel”; “Who stole my ring”; “Where is my watch” “Who stole my bicycle; “Am I in love”; “How long shall I live”; “Is my sister living”; “Where is my papa”; “Where is my brother”; “When will I be married” — and that universal question that every man has asked himself, “Where are my pants.”
Kosta, The man who unscrews his Head.
The wall plaque states fine condition, which might be a better description of the poster than that of Mr. Kosta’s neck.
The Darley’s were a European act who combined juggling with acrobatic cycling. The Spanish periodical Eco Artistico identified them as “ciclistas” in Madrid in 1910. A scarce survival of a once popular but now little remembered music-hall act.
According to Ricky Jay, Nate Leipzig was “the greatest vaudeville sleight-of-hand-performer of his time,” and “was a master exponent of pure magic technique.”
Born in Stockholm, Sweden, but raised in Detroit, Leipzig was a vaudeville magician, who was eventually elected president of the Society of American Magicians (previous presidents include Howard Thurston and Harry Houdini). He is particularly remembered for his sleight-of-hand innovations. Leipzig is credited with inventing the “Side Steal” (or, “Side Slip”), a method for secretly removing a playing card from the middle of a deck.
Ringling Bros Shows: Hillary Long Who Wears His Hat Upon His Feet and puts His Skates Upon His Head while Accomplishing Apparently Impossible Stunts
The United States Postal Service issued a stamp of this famous poster as one of eight 49-cent Forever stamps commemorating vintage circus posters in 2014. Long is shown performing two of his signature stunts: descending a staircase on his head, and, in a stop-motion-like view, roller skating down.
A magic lantern projector from the late 19th century.
Patricia Bellinger, Harvard’s Chief of Staff and the widow of Richard Balzer. Mr. Balzer’s pre-cinematic collection is on view at the recently opened Los Angeles Academy Museum.
Ricky Jay often performed on stage with Neppy who could perform a seven-minute routine.
The automaton was designed to perform a silent routine with Ricky, in which a card would be torn, handed to various members of the audience, collected, and then restored by Neppy.
It sold for $201,600, a world auction record for a contemporary automaton.
Bill Kalush, a former magician and now the owner of the Conjuring Arts Research Center, is publishing a book that Ricky wrote called Exemplars from The Ricky Jay Collection. It was edited by Anne Stringfield and designed by Coco Shinomiya-Gorodetsky.
After this life I’ve lived, I have no idea what is strange and what isn’t.
I don’t know who else waxes poetic about the virtues of skeleton men, fasting imposters, and cannonball catchers. And to be honest, I don’t really care. I just think they are wonderful.
— Ricky Jay to Mark Singer, April 5, 1993

Recent Posts