Magician and Actor Ricky Jay’s Magic Memorabilia to be Auctioned Off

The Chicago-based auction house Potter & Potter Auctions has announced the collection of magic, circus, and other show business ephemera, books, and memorabilia of the famed stage magician, character actor, and author Ricky Jay (1946-2018) will be auctioned off on Saturday, February 25, A.D. 2023.  Born Richard Jay Potash on June 26, A.D. 1946, and known professionally as Ricky Jay, he was a famous stage magician, character actor, author, essayist, and lecturer.  In 2002, he wed film and television producer Chrisann Verges.  He died on November 24, A.D. 2018 and was survived by his wife.

Mr. Jay was a master of prestidigitation, also known as legerdemain or sleight-of-hand magic.  Also a bibliophile and historian of stage magic, over a period of fifty years, Jay amassed a 10,000-piece collection that Potter & Potter described in a press release as “impressive and rare enough to be tapped for an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art” in New York City. 

The Ricky Jay Collection is being sold off in a four-part auction (or four auctions).  The first auction already occurred in New York in October of 2021 over the course of two days and realized $3,800,000.  Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago will host the second, third, and fourth auctions. These auctions are being held on behalf of Jay’s widow, Gabe Fajuri, President of Potter & Potter, confirmed to me.

Potter & Potter stated, “Over a period spanning more than half a century, Ricky Jay was a premier collector of material related to the history of magic, circus arts, gambling, con artistry, unusual entertainments, and all forms of deception.  He curated several shows of items from his collection, including ‘Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collection of Ricky Kay’ (The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, The Hammer Museum); ‘Rotten Luck: the Decaying Dice of Ricky Jay’ (The Museum of Jurassic Technology); ‘Twixt Two Worlds, or The Uninvited Guest; Selections from the Collection of Ricky Jay’ (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Credit: Potter & Potter[1] Caption: Gabe Fajuri, President of Potter & Potter, introduced this video that shows some of the many things that will be auctioned off from stage magician, character actor, and author Ricky Jay’s “extensive collection of magic, circus, and showbiz ephemera” on Saturday, February 25, A.D. 2023.

The auction to be held on February 25th will occur at the Potter & Potter gallery at 5001 West Belmont in Chicago.  This is at the intersection of Belmont Avenue and Lavergne Avenue.  The gallery is two blocks west of Cicero Avenue and one block east of the Portage-Cragin branch of the Chicago Public Library. The auction is due to start at 10:00 a.m. Central Standard Time and will also be streamed at  Absentee bids and phone bids are welcome. Potter & Potter requests that people who would like to attend the event in person register by 5:30 p.m. on Monday, February 20, A.D. 2023.

Founded in 2007, Potter & Potter specializes in “paper Americana, vintage advertising, rare books, playing cards, gambling memorabilia, posters, fine prints, vintage toys, and magicana – antiques and collectibles related to magic and magicians,” according to a press release.  The aforementioned Gabe Fajuri, the President of Potter & Potter, co-founded the auction house, appraising the collection of his friend Jay Marshall (1919-2005).  Born Jay Ward Marshall, and known professionally as The Great Jasper, Marshall was a local stage magician of international repute and proprietor of Magic, Inc..  That family-owned business combines under one roof a retail store for magic accessories, books, and D.V.D.s; a publisher of books on stage magic; and a school where lessons and lectures take place.  Marshall was already a famous stage magician and actor when he married his second wife, Frances Ireland, the widow of Laurie Ireland, the founder of Ireland’s Magic Shop at 109 North Dearborn, which the Marshalls moved to the North Side of Chicago.  Marshall’s collection, or rather collections, which spread out over Magic, Inc.; his apartment on the second floor of the building; and a warehouse next door, consisted of “millions of items” including approximately 250,000 books, reflected The Great Jasper’s many interests.  Mr. Fajuri characterized the collection as “some of it great and glorious, but much of it dreadful, down-and-dirty, hadn’t-been-touched-in-30-or-more-years junk.”  Fajuri helped the executor of the estate, David Meyer, appraise the items that were related to magic while another appraiser handled the many other items.  He described in a first-hand account for Chicago Magazine the experience 2007.

Thus, Potter & Potter is the perfect venue for an auction of Ricky Jay’s vast collection of books, archival documents and photographs, and artifacts related to stage magic, circus acts, and gambling.  The items being auctioned off on February 25th include posters that promoted 19th Century and 20th Century acts; antiquarian and modern books from Jay’s library; archival materials from magic acts and sideshows including diaries, correspondence, and photographs; and antiques related to magical acts and gambling.

All 370 lots will be available for in-person previews between the 20th and 24th of February.  Potter & Potter will host a preview reception on the evening of Thursday, February 23, A.D. 2023.  Click here to download a free pdf copy of the catalog for the Ricky Jay Collection.  Hadcover printed catalogs became available for sale at $55 on Wednesday, January 25, A.D. 2023.

Figure 1 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #2, this is a copy of The Rich Uncle from Fiji by Marmion R. G. Adams.  Illustrated by Alek Sass, it was published in Melbourne, Australia by The Exchange Press in 1911.  According to Potter & Potter, “This treatise on cons and crooked gambling includes one of only a few accounts of the Purse Swindle, as well as explanations on the methods of monte mobs and hustlers.  This work was relatively unknown until rediscovered in 1975 and has since become one of the most sought-after titles in the literature of crooked gambling and cons.”  The estimate is that it will sell for $5,000 to $8,000.

Figure 2 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #67, this is The Effigies of Mr. Mathew Buchinger.  This self-portrait is an engraving of Mathew Buchinger, dated April 29, A.D. 1724.  Matthew Buchinger (1674-1740) was a 2′ 5” tall artist, magician born without hands or feet.  Measuring 12 ¼” x 8”, it depicts Buchinger seated on a tasseled cushion.  The engraving is in the style of a cameo with scrollwork taking up the frame.  His wig has the words of the Lord’s Prayer.  The estimate is that it will sell for $6,000 to $8,000.

Figure 3 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #68, this is a Folio of Etchings, Drawings, and Engravings of Remarkable Characters and Freaks.  This scrapbook of twenty-four leaves bound in paper-sheathed boards features images of 18th Century and 19th Century freaks.  Most Importantly, one image is 10 ½” x 7” engraving inscribed with the message it is a self-portrait of Matthew Buchinger from 1709.  Matthew Buchinger (1674-1740) was a 2′ 5” tall artist, magician born without hands or feet.  The estimate is that this folio will sell for $8,000 to $12,000.

Figure 4 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #80, this is a copy of The Complete Conjuror; Or Art of Legerdemain published by Thomas Tegg in London in 1812.  There are only a handful of copies left in the world.  The estimate is that it will sell for $1,500 to $2,500.

Figure 5 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #81, “Is Conan Doyle Right?” is a poster for the silent film Is Conan DoyleRight? Distributed by Pathé, it was a film about spiritualism. Printed by J. Morgan Litho. in Cleveland in 1923, the poster has the subtitle, “Can the Dead Talk to the Living?” Born in Scotland to Irish Catholic parents, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a novelist, poet, playwright, and physician best known for writing the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories.  He rejected the Catholic faith in which he had been raised and embraced Freemasonry and spiritualism.  The poster depicts a gigantic hand descending between a seated man (the supposed spiritual medium) and woman (his client/victim) to write a message in cursive on a slate.  A crystal ball sits on the table near the slate.  The poster measures 43” x 29”.  Potter & Potter stated it “is only one of two examples known by Potter’s experts.”  The estimate is that it will sell for $6,000 to $12,000.

Figure 6 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #161, this picture depicts the diaries of Germain the Wizard.  This is a collection of fifties diaries kept by Karl Germain (1878-1959).  Born Charles Mattmuller, he was known professionally as “Germain the Wizard.”  These diaries chronicle his thoughts, tour dates, finances, and performance records from approximately 1890 to 1940.  The estimate is that this collection will sell for $10,000 to $20,000.

Figure 7 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #178, “Robert Heller and the Harlequin” is a 5” x 4 ¼” sepia tone albumen photo of Robert Heller (1826-1878).  Born William Henry Palmer, it depicts him with a harlequin automaton posed as if it was trying to escape from a chest atop a small table. The estimate is that it will sell for $1,200 to $2,500.

Figure 8 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #185, this is known as the “Hermann Decapitation” poster.  The estimate is that it will sell for $20,000 to $40,000.  It is a hand-painted poster maquette published circa 1878 printed in Chicago by The Jeffrey Printing Company.  The poster, which measures 27 ¾” by 20”, depicts French magician Alexander Herrmann (1844-1896) holding a sharp tool to the throat of a seated man he is standing behind.  The victim’s eyes bulge as the magician appears to be sawing his head off.  A desk on which sit a skull and a crystal ball is in the middle distance behind them and off to the side.  A demonic figure with wings outstretched stands in the far distance. This demon appears to be around twelve feet tall.  There are at least two severed heads in the foreground at the base of a vortex, as if we the viewers of the poster are seeing events through a crystal ball.  This lurid poster surely promotes an act of Herrmann that as part of his performance at the time the poster was made, in which he simulated a decapitation only to undo it.  However, by staging it with as much gruesome detail as if it was a scene from Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol in Paris – which did not yet exist as that theatre did not open until 1897 – it comes across as if it was an adaptation of a scene from a horror novel.  Further, by having a demon in the background, as if Herrmann was not “merely” pantomiming being a psychopath committing a murder but rather a satanist committing a human sacrifice, he blurred the distinction between stage magic (one of the performing arts) and real magic (the occult).  Potter & Potter stated, “This is the first Herrmann poster maquette Potter’s experts have handled, and one of a handful of maquettes extant for any poster produced during magic’s ‘golden age.’”

Figure 9 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #187, this is a copy of The New Art of Hocus Pocus Revived; or, The Whole Art of Legerdemain.  Published in London in 1808, the estimate is this antiquarian book will sell for $3,000 to $5,000.

Figure 10 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #196, this is an inter-ocean typed and signed postcard from Houdini.  He wrote it whilst aboard the R.M.S. Imperator.   The estimate is that it will sell for $2,000 to $4,000.

Figure 11 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #203, this is a copy of Ricky Jay’s The Magic Magic Book, which he wrote for the Whitney Museum of American Art.  The estimate is that this will sell for $2,000 to $4,000.

Figure 12 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #232, this photo album from the Victorian era features photographs of famous midgets and dwarfs.  The estimate is this will sell for $1,500 to $3,000.

Figure 13 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #247, this is Max Malini’s leather briefcase.  The estimate is that this will sell for $4,000 to $8,000.  Ricky Jay said of Max Malini (1873-1942), “The reason that I love Malini is that he performed in the heyday of the most famous magicians, of people like Harry Kellar and Howard Thurston and Houdini, but he performed without any props.  He would literally walk into the houses of the rich and famous – that’s where he would perform – and come in empty-handed and borrow a deck of cards, a handkerchief a couple pf coins, a piece of fruit, and somehow create miracles.”

Figure 14 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #287, this poster reads, “The Amazing Rameses in His Egyptian Temple of Mysteries.”  The estimate is this will sell for $3,000 to $6,000.

Figure 15 Credit: Potter & Potter Caption: From Lot #318, this is “Soapy” Smith’s Roulette Table and Wheel. The estimate is that this will sell for $10,000 to $20,000.

The Hammer Museum hosted Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collection of Ricky Jay from August 26th to November 25th of 2007.  The exhibit consisted of broadsides, playbills, and posters from his collection that had been printed from the 15th Century to the early 20th Century.  Jay contributed to a book that accompanied the exhibit, Extraordinary Exhibitions: The Wonderful Remains of an Enormous Head, the Whimsiphusican and Death to the Savage Unitarians.  Quantuck Lane Press published the book in 2005.

A Hammer Museum interviewer wrote, “Ricky Jay is a celebrated sleight-of-hand artist and a famously engaging performer on stage and screen.  While pursuing this career, Jay… cultivated a more private role, that of the inquisitive scholar and passionate collector.  Over the past thirty years he has assembled an astonishing archive of printed ephemera on spectacles and magic-related exhibitions.”

Jay told the interviewer, “My collection parallels my interest in two major areas: the broad field of deception and the exploits and accomplishments of unusual entertainers.  My interest in these fields began in childhood and has never waned.”

He expounded, “The happiest days of my youth were spent under the tutelage of my grandfather, a talented amateur magician, and I spent the largest part of each day in the practice of sleight-of-hand.  I was naturally drawn to the milieu of conjuring, but as my grandfather numbered among his friends not only great illusionists but also puppeteers, jugglers, and ventriloquists, I soon became intrigued by those arts as well and began to delve into their history.” 

Max Katz (1891-1965), Jay’s grandfather, was not simply an amateur magician.  He was the President of the Society of American Magicians.  When Jay was six years old, Katz brought him to the home of the great stage magician Cardini to see a performance.  Born in the U.K. as Richard Valentine Pitchford, it was a privilege for Katz and Jay to see him perform up close and in his own home because he normally performed in nightclubs such as the Copacabana and larger venues such as Radio City Music Hall and did not like to perform in front of fellow magicians.  [Jay would go on to have the same aversion because he appreciated obscure magicians or aspiring magicians being inspired by established figures but hated when a magician completely duplicated a trick from another.]   Decades later, Jay recalled, “Cardini was probably the greatest act I ever saw in my life.”

Mr. Katz counted amongst his friends Tony Slydini (1900-1991), Francis Carlyle (1912-1975), Dai Vernon (1894-1992), and Al Flosso (1895-1976), all of whom became mentors of Jay. In this clip from an episode of American Masters, Jay talked about his friend and mentor Dai Vernon, known as “the Professor.”  He sought Vernon out at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. 

Born in Italy and raised in Argentina, Quintino Marucci adopted the stage name “Tony Slydini” in New York City.  Katz pointed out to a young Jay that Slydini was a master at misdirection.

Al Flosso performed on Coney Island.  Born Albert Levinson, Al Flosso was a family friend who performed at Jay’s bar mizvah and at the funeral of Jay’s grandfather.  Jay attributed his interest in the history of stage magic to Flosso.

Francis Carlyle performed coin and card magic and frequently performed at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles.  Katz explained to Jay that Carlyle was impressive not just in terms of “technique and presentation” but also “the way that he explains an effect with such clarity.”

Mark Singer profiled Jay for The New Yorker in 1993, and, in that piece, he quoted bookdealer William J. Dailey as having said, “The first time I met him, I recognized him as a complete bibliomaniac.  He’s not a complete monomaniac about books on magic, but within that field he is remarkably focussed [sic].  His connoisseurship is impeccable, in that he understands the entire context of a book’s emergence.  He’s not just interested in the book’s condition.  He knows who printed it, and he knows the personal struggle the author went through to get it printed.”

In the Hammer Museum interview, Jay attributed his “transition from an interested reader to an enthusiastic researcher and collector” to his friend Persi Diaconis,[2] whom Jay described as a “statistician and sleight-of-hand expert.”  He continued, “As I began to amass my own library, on those rare occasions when I could afford it, to supplement… books with… visual ephemera: especially prints, posters, and playbills.”

Mr. Singer wrote, “In 1971… [Jay] spent a lot of time in Boston hanging out with Diaconis, who had begun to assemble a library of rare magic books.  Diaconis takes credit for explicating the rudiments of collecting to Jay and animating his academic interest.  He now regards Jay as ‘ten standard deviations out, just the best in the world in his knowledge of the literature of conjuring.’  Jay’s collection—several thousand volumes, plus hundreds of lithographs, playbills, pamphlets, broadsides, and miscellaneous ephemera—reflects his interest not only in magic but also in gambling, cheating, low life, and what he described in the subtitle of… Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women as ‘unique, eccentric and amazing entertainers: stone eaters, mind readers, poison resisters, daredevils, singing mice, etc., etc., etc., etc.’  Though Jay abhors the notion of buying books as investments, his own collection, while it is not for sale and is therefore technically priceless, more or less represents his net worth.”

Fittingly, Jay’s friend, Persi Diaconis, wrote the Introduction to Potter & Potter’s Ricky Jay Collection catalog. “I’m happy,” he wrote, “that Ricky Jay’s amazing collection will be scattered back to the world of magicians and collectors.  Ricky said that I started him off on serious collecting.”

Professor Diaconis explained that he and Jay began their friendship in boyhood as child-magicians who renewed their friendship when Jay was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Diaconis was a graduate student nearby.  Back then, Cambridge and Boston had dozens of second-hand bookshops (including Ximenes and Goodspeed’s) and although they could not yet afford to purchase what they wanted, they developed a taste for antiquarian books.  A few years later, they found themselves in London at a Sotheby’s auction, as a result of which “Both of us were broke again.”

But Ricky had a strategic advantage: he was a working professional [whereas Diaconis was a professional scholar and an amateur magician] who traveled from city to city and country to country.  Always making the rounds, meeting collectors, making contacts.  Ricky built his collection piece by piece over the course of fifty years.  For much of this time, funds were low so he made deals, bargained, traded up, and arranged swaps.  I became his follower in those days. Picking up his duplicates (with the understanding that he kept the better copy).  If he couldn’t afford it, he’d let me have a shot at it… He’d call me from book fairs (‘I just saw… I’ve got one, and this is pricey, but…’).  As Ricky’s opportunities to collect expanded, mine dwindled, but he always looked after his friends.

Persi Diaconis, The Ricky Jay Collection, “Introduction”

“It was an easy segue,” Jay explained in the Hammer Museum interview, “from conjuring to automata, the marvelous mechanical devices often exhibited by magicians.”  [The best way of describing an automaton to the average person who has not seen one in person (or on screen) or read about automata in a book is to say an automaton is a wind-up mechanical robot with clockworks inside.  When set in motion, it will perform certain tasks.  However, the most famous automaton in history, “The Turk,” which could supposedly play chess, turned out to be a fraud that was operated by a man hidden inside the contraption.]  “Then another small leap brought me to scientific attractions like speaking machines or magic lanterns, and then to inventions claiming to have conquered the unconquerable mystery of perpetual motion.  Which brings us back to deception and fraud, which call to mind broadsides for exhibitions of tools used by pickpockets and burglars, displayed in a detective museum.”

Jay made an interesting connection between museums and circuses when he related that the detective museum led him “to museums themselves, which often exhibited physical anomalies that seemed related to exotic ethnological attractions, which spawned an interest in unusual animals and menageries, which relates to the circus.”[3]  Since circuses, early in their history, also “featured magicians,” this led Jay back full circle to his original interest in stage magic.

“Nicholas Barker, who recently retired as one of the deputy keepers of the British Library,” Singer noted, said, “Ricky would say you can’t be a conjurer without knowing the history of your profession, because there are no new ticks under the sun, only variations.  He’s a superbly gifted conjurer, and he’s an immensely scholarly person whose knowledge in his chosen field is gigantic, in a class by itself.  And, like any other scholarly person, he has a very good working knowledge of fields outside his own.”

Singer quoted comedian-writer-actor-producer-musician Steve Martin as having said, “I sort of think of Ricky as the intellectual élite of magicians.  I’ve had experience with magicians my whole life.  He’s expertly able to perform and yet he knows the theory, history, literature of the field.  Ricky’s a master of his craft.  You know how there are those teachers of creative writing who can’t necessarily write can teach?  Well, Ricky can actually do everything.”

Ricky Jay as a Lecturer-Demonstrator

At the time Singer wrote his article, he stated, “At that point, I had known Jay for two years, during which we had discussed his theories of magic, his relationships with and opinions of other practitioners of the art, his rigid opposition to public revelations the techniques of magic, and relentless passion for collecting rare books and manuscripts, art, and other artifacts connected to the history of magic, gambling, unusual entertainments, and frauds and confidence games.  He has a skeptically friendly, mildly ironic conversational manner and a droll, filigreed prose style.  Jay’s collection functions as a working research library.  He is the author of dozens of scholarly articles and also two diverting and richly informative books…   For the past several years, he has devoted his energies mainly to scholarship and to acting in and consulting on motion pictures.  Though he loves to perform, he is extremely selective about venues and audiences.  I’ve attended lectures and demonstrations by him before gatherings of East Coast undergraduates, West Coast students of the history of magic, and Midwestern bunco-squad detectives.”  

Potter & Potter stated, “As a writer and speaker on subjects as varied as conjuring literature, sense perception, and unusual entertainments, Mr. Jay presented numerous lecture-demonstrations.  Among them are ‘Hocus Pocus in Perfection: Four Hundred Years of Conjuring Literature,’ the Harold Smith memorial Lecture at Brown University; ‘The Origins of the Confidence Game’ for the conference of Police Against Confidence Crime; ‘Fast and Loose: The Techniques and Literature of Cheating’ at the William Andrew Clark Memorial Library, UCLA; ‘The Mystery of Fasting Impostors,’ and ‘The Avant Garde Art of Armless Calligraphers’ at Amherst College; ‘Illusion as Truth,’ the keynote address at the International Design Conference in Aspen; ‘Prose & Cons: The Early Literature of Cheating’ in the Pforzheimer Lecture Series on the book arts at the New York Public Library and at the Chicago Humanities Festival; and ‘Magic & Science’ for the TED Conference in Monterey, California.”

Ricky Jay as an Author and Essayist

Ricky Jay wrote and contributed to several books.  Images Graphiques published his first book, Cards as Weapons, in 1977.  Jay’s best-known book is probably Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, published by Villard in 1986.  Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck, published in 2002, was a collaboration with Rosamond Purcell.  He wrote The Magic Magic Book for the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

Jay was an author and editor for the book Many Mysteries Unraveled or Conjuring Literature in America 1786-1876, published by the American Antiquarian Society and the Mullholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts. Georgia Brady Barnhill and Sally Levinson were also editors of that book.

He published a fine press quarterly, Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, from 1994 to 2000.  In 2001, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published a book that compiled all his essays from that quarterly as Jay’s Journal of Anomalies: Conjurers, Cheats, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters, Imposters, Pretenders, Side-Show Showmen, Armless Calligraphers, Mechanical Marvels, Popular Entertainments.  The Los Angeles Times named it one of the best books of the year.

In 2011, McSweeney’s Books published Celebrations of Curious Characters, which was a compilation of his humorous essays he had recorded for the N.P.R. radio station K.C.R.W. in Los Angeles.  David Mamet wrote the Introduction.

Siglio published his last book, which had a delightfully antiquarian title.  It was Matthias Buchinger: “The Greatest German Living”: By Ricky Jay Whose Peregrinations in Search of the “Little Man of Nuremberg” are Herein Revealed.

Further, he contributed the Introduction to the book Magic 1400s – 1950s, published by Taschen in 2021.  He defined words for stage magic for The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre and Encyclopedia Britannica.

Ricky Jay as an Actor and Film Consultant

Jay made his debut as an actor in Joseph Papp’s production of William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream for the New York Shakespeare Festival.  A frequent collaborator with writer-director-producer David Mamet, Jay appeared in seven films written and directed by Mamet: House of Games (1987), Things Change (1988), Homicide (1991), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), State and Main (2000), Heist (2001), and Redbelt (2008).  Most of these films delt with conmen victimizing people, but one of them delt with moral corruption in Hollywood.[4] 

In addition, Jay appeared in several episodes of a television series produced by Mamet, The Unit (2006-2009), which was about a fictional version of the U.S. Army’s secretive Delta Force.  Jay played a recruiter for the C.I.A.

Twice, Mamet directed stage shows for Jay.  These were Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants and Ricky Jay: On the Stem.  The former earned Jay the Lucille Lortel and Obie Awards for Outstanding Achievement.  After a successful run in New York, it moved to the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, the Melbourne International Arts Festival, the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles, The Spoletto Festival in Charleston, and the Old Vic in London.

Similarly, Jay worked twice with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson in the 1990s.  Jay appeared in Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999).  He also narrated the latter.

On screen, Jay sometimes played magicians.  In “The Amazing Maleeni,” a 7th Season episode of The X-Files (1993-2002), he played The Amazing Maleeni/Herbert Pinchbeck and his twin brother Albert Pinchbeck. That episode began with The Amazing Maleeni, a small-time illusionist, demonstrating to another magician, Billy LaBonge (fellow magician-actor Jonathan Levit) heckling him that he could turn his head 360 degrees only for his head to fall clean off.  This is of course, a setup for a con game.  In Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006), he had a small but critical role as he played Milton the Magician, an American stage magician on the London stage who employed rival magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) early in their careers when their rivalry takes a tragic turn.  Jay also worked on the film as a technical consultant.

Improbably, he played “techno-terrorist” Henry Gupta, computer expert of the archvillain media baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) in Pierce Brosnan’s second James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

On January 23, A.D. 2015, P.B.S. broadcast a documentary about him, Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, as an episode of American Masters entitled, “American Masters—Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice,” the premiere episode of the 29th Season. Dick Cavett was the narrator.  He remains the only stage magician to be so honored.

He played himself in a humorous scene in the mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness (2004).[5]  Near the beginning of the film, the documentary crew films what is supposed to be a dinner party at the home of Werner & Lena Herzog and the guests include Ricky Jay and Jeff Goldblum.  He also played himself, or, rather, provided the voice for an animated representation of himself, as did David Copperfield, and Penn & Teller, for the 22nd Season episode of The Simpsons, “The Great Simpsina.”

On television, in addition to his performance as a magician-conman (and his twin brother) on The X-Files, his appearances on Mamet’s The Unit, and lending his voice for a murderous version of himself on an episode of The Simpsons, Jay appeared on several other shows. He played card shark Eddie Sawyer on Season 1 of the H.B.O. western series Deadwood (2004-2006), and also wrote one episode. On the science fiction-thriller series FlashForward (2009-2010), he played Flosso, the benefactor of quantum physicist Simon Campos (Dominic Monaghan) since a young age who proves to be a menacing emissary of the powerful group of people who caused almost everyone in the world to blackout while they glimpsed what they would be doing six months in the future in order to profit from it.[6]  In 2019, he appeared in eight episodes of Sneaky Pete (2015-2019), a thriller about Marius Josipović (Giovanni Ribisi), a conman who is pursued by eludes a gangster victim by impersonating his former cellmate, Pete Murphy.  Jay played T.H. Vignetti, a criminal mastermind who offers Marius/Pete an opportunity.

Jay could be both sympathetic and sinister on screen.  Compare his performance in Spanish Prisoner with that in FlashForward

He really added something to film (and television) productions he was in, but how do we describe what he lent to those productions?  I would say he brought gravity and a sense of verisimilitude to every scene he was in.  

Whether he was playing a good man or an evil man, he always played a serious man (except when he played himself).  When he played a villain, he came across on screen like he plausibly could be a vicious criminal capable of carrying out acts of violence himself, a criminal mastermind capable of orchestrating crimes, or the kind of man a dangerous organization would use in a key position.  He also looked and sounded more like a “real person,” which is to say a man who was more representative of the general population than so many screen actors and actresses who have leading roles.[7]  In this regard, he was like the English character actor Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954), who is remembered now largely for his performances in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Christmas in Connecticut (1945).

With partner Michael Weber, he founded the consulting company Deceptive Practices.  They imparted “Arcane Knowledge on a Need-to-Know Basis” for film, television, and theatrical productions.  In his capacity as a consultant, he worked on such films as The Escape Artist (1982), The Natural (1984), Leap of Faith (1992), Forrest Gump (1994), and The Illusionist (2006), as well as the Broadway production of Angels in America: Perestroika.

– Interview with Gabe Fajuri, President of Potter & Potter Auctions –

(1) Late last year, as I wrote about at the time, you held an auction for the circus memorabilia collection of John and Jan Zweifel, the items from the Museum of Science and Industry’s Circus exhibit, and Zeph the animatronic burro from the M.S.I.’s second iteration of the Burlington Zephyr exhibit. This year, you are holding the installment in the auction of Ricky Jay’s collection… In the future, you will be holding the third and fourth installments. In the press release for the second installment of the Rick Jay Collection auction, it states “magicana – antiques and collectibles related to magic and magicians” is one of your areas of specialization. Are you cementing a reputation for being the go-to place for auctions of magicana and materials from circus acts and related performing arts?

At the risk of sounding braggadocious, we established our reputation in those areas years ago, as the first auction we conducted way back in 2008 was from the collection of magician, ventriloquist, and magic shop owner Jay Marshall – and every year since our founding we have brought to market a huge array of unusual, odd, and collectible magic tricks, posters, books, autographs, and related memorabilia.

(2) What would you say is your favorite (or most interesting) object that will be part of this auction?

Tough call. Ricky Jay was a personal hero and many of the items in the auction were used to illustrate the books he wrote that I grew up on. For example, lot 52, the lithograph for D.M. Bristol’s Equescurriculum (an act consisting of trained horses) is one I stared at in the pages of Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, as is lot 345, the poster advertising C.H. Unthan, the “pedal paganini,” who played a violin and operated a typewriter with his feet, as he was born without arms.

(3) Is stage magic a matter of personal interest to you? If so, do you have a favorite magician?

I grew up loving and practicing magic – it’s been a source of intense personal interest and fascination since the age of six.

(4) Were you a fan of Ricky Jay as an actor? If so, do you have a favorite performance of his?

His appearances in House of Games and some of David Mamet’s other films are my favorites, though I do admire his work in some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, too.


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[1] Hal Schulman made the video for Potter & Potter.

[2] A Greco-American, Persi Diaconis is the Mary V. Sunseri Professor of Statistics and Mathematics at Stanford University.  In 1982, he won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (known in the press as a “genius grant”) from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  His wife, Professor Susan Holmes, is also a statistician.

[3] The leap from museums to circuses may seem odd to the average visitor to a modern museum such as The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and an audience member in a modern circus such as Circus Vasquez, or someone who can recall a visit to see Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus before it ceased operations in 2017, because museums appeal to the intellect (the desire for private edification) whereas circuses appeal to emotion (the desire to witness spectacle) but in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century the bridge between the two did not have to stretch as far, and someone like Jay would be aware that was the case.  Chicago’s first World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), for example, combined temporary museums with features of amusement parks and circuses in a single place.  Although the film The Greatest Showman (2017) has many fictional elements and omits many important aspects from P.T. Barnum’s life, it does convey to viewers he went from owning a private museum to starting Barnum & Bailey Circus.

[4] The most bizarre collaboration between Mamet and Jay was Jay’s narration of a six-minute-long short film written and directed by Mamet entitled “Lost Masterpieces of Pornography” for the Website FunnyorDie in 2010.  It starred Kristin Bell as “June Crenshaw, Sex Kitten to the Supreme Court” and Ed O’Neil as the “Chief Justice.”  The conceit is that it is a fragment of a pornographic film from 1938 and was part of a collection recently found in the woodworking shop of a Beverly Hills dentist.  Jay is supposed to be the host of “Lost Masterpieces of Pornography,” a television series presenting the pornographic films in question.  Viewable on both FunnyorDie and on YouTube, it comes across as a combination of absurdist humor, social satire, and satire of the kind of documentation of historic entertainers at the margin of society that Jay really conducted. 

[5] The premise of the film is that a documentary crew is filming writer-director-actor Werner Herzog’s life when he is supposed to be making a documentary himself about why people believe the Loch Ness Monster is real.  However, his friend who’s producing the film, Zak Penn (the writer and director of Incident at Loch Ness), wants to spice things up by hiring glamour model Katana Baker to operate the sonar on the boat the documentary crew will be operating on Loch Ness and having a mock Loch Ness monster made behind Herzog’s back. [Another source of humor is that she has studied how to operate sonar in preparation for the film and can actually do it.] The presence of this mock Loch Ness Monster angers the real Loch Ness Monster.

[6] In Robert J. Sawyer’s science fiction novel Flashforward, of which the show FlashFoward was a loose adaptation, it was a natural phenomenon that threw society into chaos, but in the show a sinister group is behind people worldwide losing consciousness while they glimpse the future.

[7] Directors allow casting directors more latitude when it comes to casting supporting roles than the leading roles and may allow them to cast known character actors or find obscure actors (or the director may already have a character actor in mind himself and tell the casting director to fetch him).  The actors and actresses who have leading roles (except for comedic actors) tend to rise to prominence because they are noticeably more attractive than the average person in a very particular way (because directors and cinematographers noticed over 100 years ago that fine-boned people of small stature looked better on screen).     


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