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The Curious, Astounding Collection of the Magician Ricky Jay

LOS ANGELES—Long ago, in the groovy haze of time, the master conjurer Ricky Jay attended a party at the Las Vegas estate of the extravagant …

The Curious, Astounding Collection of the Magician Ricky Jay

LOS ANGELES—Long ago, in the groovy haze of time, the master conjurer Ricky Jay attended a party at the Las Vegas estate of the extravagant entertainers Siegfried and Roy. Wandering among the menagerie of caged animals and strutting peacocks, he spotted a fellow magician in a white leisure suit with gold trim.

As the two friends chatted, a Siberian tiger in a nearby cage sent a firehose-worthy stream of urine arcing through the air. The deluge drenched the leisure-suited magician and abruptly ended the conversation.

Years later, Jay returned to Las Vegas and invited his friend to lunch. As they shook hands, Jay said: I don’t think I’ve seen you since the tiger peed on you.

To which the friend responded: You remember that?

Jay so loved this anecdote that “You Remember That?” became the working title of the memoir he never finished. The phrase echoed his resolve to keep in memory his creative forebears: the illusionists and enchanters, the charlatans and cardsharps, the human cannonballs, armless artists, learned animals and practitioners of ancient acts that still amaze. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 17th century water spouter Jean Royer, able to swallow prodigious amounts of water and then spout said liquid in colors and aromas pleasing to the senses.

In 1996, Ricky Jay rehearses at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles for the show “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants.”Credit…Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

When Jay died, at 72, in 2018, he left a body of work rooted in sleight of hand, scholarly cant and wonder, shared over a half-century on stage (including “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants”), television (including “Deadwood”) and film (including “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Tomorrow Never Dies.”)

But he also left more than 10,000 rare books, posters, broadsides, handbills and ephemera, a vast collection that transformed his Beverly Hills home into a research library dedicated to the human desire to be fooled — to slip the cuffs of reality and believe, if only briefly, the unbelievable. He knew every item, could recite passages from ancient texts, and incorporated the material into his performances. His collection lived.

An automaton that could perform a seven-minute routine with Ricky Jay.Credit…Eric Helgas for The New York Times
A magic lantern projector from the late 19th century.Credit…Eric Helgas for The New York Times
The auction at Sotheby’s includes a Houdini poster from 1912.Credit…Eric Helgas for The New York Times

But what was Jay’s wife, Chrisann Verges, an Emmy Award-winning producer, to do with it all? While she cherished these reflections of her husband’s passions — and would never part with several choice pieces that kept her Ricky present — there was just so much. She’d pick up a book and a handwritten note from Houdini would fall out.

Here, a 1739 copy of “The Old Hocus Pocus: Being the Anatomy of Legerdemain; Or, The Whole Art of Jugling.” There, a poster for the cross-dressing high-wire artist Bert — or Berta — Beeson, “The Mad-Cap Whirlwind of the Mid-Air.” And everywhere, items to drop the jaw: an 1809 dictionary of lowlife slang; an 18th century playbill for “A Man who Eats and Digests Stones and Flints”; an 1829 broadside for a London performance by a troupe of cats who could beat drums, grind knives and roast coffee.

Verges said that his collection so occupied Jay’s thoughts that he was giddily unwrapping recent acquisitions during his final hospital stay. “It wasn’t a burden,” she said. “It was a joy.”

Verges first approached a few institutions about acquiring the entire collection, but they deemed it too diverse. She then invited representatives from Sotheby’s auction house to explore Jay’s accumulated treasure, which occupied nearly every shelf, drawer and display case in their two-story house. A 19th century roulette table of questionable integrity, once owned by the con-artist frontiersman “Soapy” Smith, is parked next to her car in the garage.

Not that Jay was a hoarder. With the help of assistants, he photographed and cataloged every item in a digital database. His books were arranged by category — magic, circus, eccentric characters — and his file drawers were labeled, which made it easier, say, to find that handbill for “Prof. William Fricke’s Original Imperial Flea Circus.”

Under “flea bills,” of course.

A ticket to a flea circus, from Jay’s collection. With the help of assistants, he photographed and cataloged every item in a digital database.Credit…Eric Helgas for The New York Times

When Selby Kiffer and Ella Hall, specialists in books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s, arrived at the Jay-Verges home, tucked into a hillside off Mulholland Drive, they were taken aback by the size and breadth of the idiosyncratic collection. A Sotheby’s veteran, Kiffer was more familiar with Thomas Jefferson and Herman Melville than with Toby the Sapient Pig, or Ralph Terry, the silhouette artist known as The Man With the Mysterious Fingers.

But Kiffer recognized how this singular collection was an extension of the man. Part of it came from Jay’s resolve to keep alive the memory of the curious and astounding performers of the past. And part was rooted in a kind of self-education — an exploration of how Ricky Potash, unhappy child in Elizabeth, N.J., became Ricky Jay, “The Scholar Mountebank,” as the playwright David Mamet, his close friend, once described him.

“I think he wanted to know whose shoulders he was standing on,” Kiffer said in an interview at Sotheby’s headquarters, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he was preparing for a two-day auction of Jay’s collection beginning Oct. 27.

Jay cannot be summed up with some concise carnival-barker pitch. He was a magician’s magician, a sleight-of-hand grand master and, as he liked to say, “a student of deception and occasional practitioner.” With his road-traveled face and baleful gaze, he often seemed torn between lightening your wallet or ending your misery with the flick of a playing card to the forehead. (Among his many books: “Cards As Weapons.”)

Friends described him as loyal and big-hearted, curmudgeonly and complex, forever on the lookout for the “villains” in the world. “He was rightfully judgmental,” his longtime friend Steve Martin said.

A color lithograph poster featuring the magician Kellar from 1894.Credit…Eric Helgas for The New York Times

He was also a champion complainer who believed that the fates conspired against him from having, say, a hotel room to his liking. He did not enjoy the company of children or dogs; that is, until he and Verges got a Bernese Mountain Dog named Boswell, and suddenly, as if by magic, he was transformed into a dog person.

“I have a theory,” Martin said. “As you age, you either become your best or worst self. Ricky became his best self.”

In Jay’s telling, about the only redeeming aspect of his childhood was having an amateur magician for a grandfather, who taught him the fundamentals and personally introduced him to assorted masters of conjuring. The Cardinis, Slydinis and Al Flossos of the world took the boy under their caped wings.

When Jay wasn’t performing — he was doing magic on television before he hit puberty — he was reading up on the deceptive arts or practicing with his 52 assistants. (He carried packs of cards with him wherever he went, his wife said, and was constantly practicing his shuffling technique, including while at the movies.)

By his 20s, Jay was a longhaired magician performing on the road, opening for rock bands and appearing on talk shows. As he traveled, he would scour the local bookstores and antiquarian shops for what he once wrote were his two central pursuits: “the broad field of deception (and the subgenres of illusion, cheating, fraud, and swindling); and the exploits and accomplishments of unusual entertainers.”

Jay performs with his beloved cards on “Saturday Night Live” on Jan. 22, 1977.Credit…NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

He became an erudite scholar of his particular interests, his keen eye and sagacity legendary among collectors and often on display in his stage performances and lectures. “He was able to enter the world of amazing things and have a career from it,” Victoria Dailey, a bookseller, writer and friend, said. “Collect it, understand it, channel it. I can’t say imitate it, because he was it.”

Dailey said that Jay once asked her to close her hands. He said a few things, and then pulled a coin from her ear.

“Then he said, ‘Open your hands,’” she recalled. “And there were coins in them. They were my own hands. And they had been closed.”

After Jay and Verges became a couple in the mid-1990s, they bought this Beverly Hills house, which was in move-in condition and offered a glorious view of Benedict Canyon. “But for Ricky it was really the space,” Verges said. “There were a lot of bookshelves here.”

It took two truckloads to haul Jay’s collection from the one-bedroom apartment he was vacating. “And Ricky was so nervous,” Verges said. “He made us follow the truck.”

After Jay died, Verges realized that what she had inherited wasn’t so much a collection as it was, she said, “a collection of collections.”

Chrisann Verges, an Emmy Award-winning producer and the widow of Ricky Jay, sits at the collector’s desk near some of his posters.Credit…Amanda Hakan for The New York Times

In keeping with his interest in fraud, for example, Jay also collected spirit photographs, in which the ghostly departed appeared to be posing beside their living loved ones. He also collected and resurrected to prominence — at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other places — the microcalligraphy of Matthias Buchinger (1674-1740), an extraordinary German artist, magician and entertainer who was 29 inches tall and born without hands or lower legs.

Then Sotheby’s stepped in. For a week in the fall and a second week in the spring, the specialists Kiffer and Hall arrived every morning at the door of the Jay-Verges home to be greeted by Toby, a Bernedoodle named after the sapient pig who appeared on the London stage in the early 1800s. Verges would offer them coffee, and then they would lose themselves once more in the curious Ricky Jay sea.

In the end, Kiffer and Hall selected close to 2,000 items that are to be offered in 634 lots at this month’s auction. Sotheby’s estimates the sale could realize $3 million or more.

Brian Cassidy, a rare-book dealer in Silver Spring, Md., agreed with the estimate, partly because people have become more accustomed during the pandemic to bidding online — but mostly because of the Ricky Jay aura.

“There will be a lot of interest just because these were Ricky Jay’s books,” Cassidy said. “From now on, every book in this auction will be ‘The Ricky Jay Copy.’ That’s how it will be referred to.”

Cassidy added that only Jay could have assembled such a collection. “He was sort of telling a story about human wonder,” he said. “Human marvel.”

But the auction will not include one of the more intriguing items: an old, hollowed-out book, entitled “Lee’s Dissertations,” that contained $8,000 in cash. The discovery stunned Verges; all she knew was that Jay had tucked away a few hundred dollars somewhere, in case of an earthquake.

Kiffer said that the Ricky Jay Collection auction will not be the most expensive sale he’s ever been involved in. “And maybe it’s not the most important or significant, historically,” he said. “But it’s hard to think of anything more fun or, for me, more educational.”

Items that Jay considered small personal treasures were stored in their own cabinet.Credit…Amanda Hakan for The New York Times
Verges holds open one of many scrapbooks of clippings.Credit…Amanda Hakan for The New York Times
Jay acquired an extensive collection of books about magic.Credit…Amanda Hakan for The New York Times

Verges held a couple of going-away parties for the collection. Finally, in June, professionals trained in the transportation of precious art arrived at the door. With white-gloved care, they packed and carried away the chosen items, all while under the dour scrutiny of the Ricky Jay bust sitting on a shelf.

They took away so much. More than a dozen Buchingers. The 1903 “Houdini in Russia” poster, commemorating when the illusionist, stripped naked and locked in a Moscow cell, escaped in 28 minutes “to the unspeakable astonishment of the Russian police.” The 1898 window card with the vivid illustration announcing the latest achievement of Kellar, legendary magician: “Self Decapitation.”

These, and so much more, to be transported elsewhere with the bang of an auctioneer’s gavel.

But wait, ladies and gentlemen! Astounded though you certainly are by all that has come before, please remain plastered — in your seats, that is — for the stupefying conclusion to this tale!

After Sotheby’s removed the nearly 2,000 items it had selected — 200 times 10, ladies and gentlemen! — Verges looked around.

There were still thousands of books. “Modern Card Tricks Without Apparatus.” “Will Goldston’s Further Exclusive Magical Secrets.” “Best of the World’s Best Dice Games.” “The Amusements of Old London,” volumes I and II.

There were still the original notes for the acts of magicians long gone, including a 1905 script by Germain the Wizard, once known for his bouquet-of-flowers illusion (“I wish to borrow once more, this time a lady’s kerchief for a few moments…”).

There were still posters celebrating sword-swallowers and spiritualists and strongmen able to withstand a cannonball blast to the stomach. Still ancient pieces of paper meant to be slapped up on a wall and forgotten, yet still here, still celebrating the diversions of another time. Still — so much.

Here, then, ladies and gentlemen, was Ricky Jay’s last illusion, as explained by his astonished wife, Chrisann Verges:

“Sotheby’s took their shipment,” she said. “And you can’t even tell it’s gone.”

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