Summer Sale | Save $15 through Sunday. Get the code »

alibris logo

The magic of magic

By Gwyn L. Irwin
Source: O.P. World, April 1998

The word “Magic” is defined by Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus as “the art of producing mysterious effects by illusion and sleight of hand.” The word “magician” is defined as “one who practices tricks of illusion and sleight of hand.”

These are nice, concise definitions; but for the book dealer or collector there is much more to magic than any thesaurus or dictionary can describe. Magic is the most universal of the performing arts and one of the oldest. Magic is an art that is, and always has been, known and practiced in every country of the world throughout the centuries.


One of the earliest books mentioning magic was dictated by Abu-Abdulah Mohmed in 1335 in the book Travels in Asia and Africa. This book was dictated following Mohmed’s return to North Africa from travels where he had witnessed the art of magicians in Asia and Africa.

I have no doubt that even the cavemen practiced their own form of magic to impress others or to protect themselves by instilling fear and awe in their fellow cave dwellers.

The French clockmaker Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin is known as the father of modern magic. It was in honor of this young French innovator that Ehrich Weiss (Erik Weisz) took for himself the stage name of The Great Houdini and went on to become the foremost magic artist of the 19th and 20th Century.

Interest in magic collecting became really hot in the late l970’s and many feel it was because of the heightened interest in all phases of our past spurred by the Bicentennial. It is my personal feeling that the Bicentennial was only a small part of the reason, or possibly what kicked off the interest, for at that time it became widely known that it was the 50th anniversary of the death of The Great Houdini.


Although I have been selling Magic for about five years, I am far from an authority on the subject. I have been a general line dealer with my major interests in Civil War, Pennsylvania, and Architecture. My involvement with magic began when a friend, who is a practicing magician, decided to streamline his collection and reference library. He offered his excess items to me, but I was quite wary of spending large sums on items about which I knew absolutely nothing. When I expressed my feelings to my friend, he assured me that he would be there to help me in any way he could if I wanted to buy. Being a bit of a gambler at heart, I decided that with his help, I really had nothing to lose and would gain an education in an area which had been previously unknown to me. Since my first plunge I have bought any and all magic related material that I have found.

I find the most fascinating aspects of dealing in books and ephemera related to magic are the interesting people I meet—and the hunt. The majority of my customers are practicing magicians and dedicated collectors, and believe me, I learn more from my customers than from any book in the world.

Now for the second aspect—the hunt: and a hunt it is! I feel like a child on Christmas morning when I find more than one good magic item in a month’s time. When I find magic material I buy it as long as it is complete. Most older books are usually well-used and frequently underlined and loaded with margin notes. I buy them anyway. The reason for books being marked up is because magicians now and in the past really used their books for study and reference in presenting their art. I don’t mind marked books, especially when they have come from the library of a well-known magician, for they are often signed.

I have already bought books with as many as four magician’s names in them. Often the signers have gone to the great beyond. Good books are the lifeline of the magician the same as good reference books are the lifeline of the book dealer. Two magicians in the past few years have told me that the price and condition of a book means nothing to them as long as they are able to get at least one good trick from it. Paper items such as programs, cards, photos, etc. usually come in much better condition although they are a bit harder to find.

Pricing for me has not come easy. Although there are price guides and auction catalogues for posters, most list very few books on the subject of magic and price guides for antiques and collectibles carry even less on related materials. So often the pricing has to be done by my gut feelings and auction prices. This has seemed to work out quite well for me.

Naturally the very early books, programs, posters, etc. bring the premium prices, especially if they were written by, signed by, or are about the “greats” of one of the world’s oldest arts. Because of the dearth of material in comparison to many other specialties, I seldom carry a huge, or even very large inventory; but I always have a nice assortment on hand; and it is always a must with me to buy any collection that I can.

A few weeks ago, a young couple came to my shop to browse for books on plants, astronomy and astrology, which are the fields of interest to the young lady. The gentleman found himself in seventh heaven when he spotted the magic section. He is a magician but he never expected to find books, photographs, posters, and paper magic in the shop. We spent a fascinating hour with him showing me card tricks with one of the Svengali decks. He didn’t tell me how the tricks were done, but he gave me a private show that I shall never forget! His fiancee came in a few days later to pick up an early Thurston theatre program as a Christmas present for him and to put an autographed Blackstone photo on hold.


Once you have decided to collect magic I would advise studying the history of magic. This will help you know the types of items available in order that you can make a good decision on narrowing your field of collecting. At that point you are on your way to becoming a collector, not an accumulator of unrelated items.

There are many ways to narrow your chosen field. You may wish to collect items from a given timeframe, items related to one specific magician, or signed material (posters, catalogues of magic supplies, books, stage props, magazines)—and don’t forget the ladies —there were women magicians whose names rank right up there with Blackstone, Thurston and the other greats. The lady magician which immediately comes to my mind when women magicians are mentioned is Dell O’Dell, a winning personality and an excellent magician. I have never met anyone who collects in the field of women magicians, although I am sure there are some out there. With the emphasis on women’s studies and political correctness today, what could be a better field of collecting?

If you feel you would like to deal in magic, may I suggest that you start off by reading the book The Illustrated History of Magic by Milbourne Christopher. It will take you from the early days of magic through 1973. The book is loaded with photos and drawings of both performers and ephemera. It doubles as a history and a reference book, for as we all know, reproductions of posters, broadsides, etc. abound today and many of the original items are beautifully illustrated and can be used for comparison.

If you have decided magic is for you, I suggest you attend every magic show that you can. There you may be lucky enough to find an original poster, theatre ticket stubs, photos and/or programs. Many times it is possible to have your items signed. Magicians are egocentrics who love to perform and impress their audiences. I do not say this in a derogatory way and hope no one takes offense at my analysis of the magician’s personality. It is meant in a truly complimentary manner, for magicians are artists—they know it, and they deserve all the accolades they receive.

There is an ever growing group of younger collectors for contemporary magicians’ material. This interest has been enhanced by television, newspapers, and Internet. David Copperfield and Penn & Teller are performers without equal today. It is my guess that Copperfield will be looked upon by future generations the way our generation thinks of The Great Houdini.

When looking for material, you may find it just about anywhere—book shops, shows, flea markets, garage sales, etc. There have been some exceptionally good finds being used as bookmarks in totally unrelated books. Keep a keen eye out for items on magic. They just might turn up magically in the darndest places!

If by now you have decided magic is not for you, think again. Several weeks ago when I checked the subscriber profiles on Interloc I found only five dealers who listed magic in either the specialty area or areas of interest. I think there is room for quite a few good dealers in magic.

The following books are very good to get you started in dealing in the world of magic.

After you have read these books, there are hundreds more that you can find in any large public library which will keep you entertained and fascinated for many a long winter night.

On that note, I shall say Abra-Ca-Da-Bra and disappear. Hope to see you out looking for magic when I am on my travels through the world of illusion.

Gwyn Irwin is the owner of Gwyn’s Collectibles and Books. Although she carries a selection of general titles, she has a special love for books on Architecture, Civil War, Pennsylvania, trade catalogues and of course, magic.