Published: August 30, 2022
Review by Marty Steiner, Photos Courtesy Freedom Auction Company
SARASOTA, FLA. – If advance bidding has anything to do with an auction’s performance, Freedom Auction Company’s Circus, Wild West, Sideshow and Posters sale on August 6 would be one for the record books. Composed of many lots from prominent collections of this genre, the show continued on with their new owners. The majority of the headliners generated a great amount of bidder interest, and most of the nearly 800 objects sold for more than their estimated prices.
From the Ken Harck Collection, a rare one-sheet lithograph poster of Annie Oakley took top billing. An anonymous private collector held his bid to the very last, bidding on the phone to $96,875. Sharp-shooting women were in demand at this sale. Annie Oakley came on the Wild West scene in 1885 when she outshot Buffalo Bill at his “Shooting Exhibition” in Chicago and stayed with the show for 17 seasons. For the bidder on a budget, a cabinet card photo of Nellie Gordon “Lady Rifle Shot” sold at $750 and the three-sheet 1888 poster of Lillian Smith, “the California Girl,” known for always being in Annie’s shadow, for $4,688.
Five of the top lots were “Buffalo Bill”-related, all of which sold above their estimates, and more than 60 lots from the Wild West performance series drew strong bids from buyers. The top of these was a 1904 Col. W.F. Cody “Buffalo Bill” three-sheet linen poster of the man himself on horseback, which more than doubled its $8/12,000 estimate at $35,000. Two other Buffalo Bill posters from his Wild West performances sold for $12,500 and $9,063. Just Bill’s image was enough to scare up $7,500 in the form of a circa 1893 half-sheet lithograph portrait poster from A. Hoen of Baltimore, Md.
One of the prominent categories was small scale circus wagon models by Gordon “Gordie” Turner out of Schenectady, N.Y. Now 87, Turner is a lifelong circus historian, and his collection of memorabilia populated a large portion of the lots. Turner attended his first circus at age 5 with his parents, arriving on the lot early while the wagons were still being unloaded. As a lion cage wagon was being pulled by, the cage pin bounced out of its keeper and out jumped the lion from the unpinned door. As the lion now was loose in the field, workers instructed the Turner family to jump inside a nearby empty cage wagon. Needless to say, it did not take long for the Turners to secure themselves into the empty unit while the workers corralled the ornery lion. Turner has been hooked on the circus and its culture ever since.
With no formal training other than high school courses, Turner had a natural talent for illustrations which became evident in his circus models and is considered a premier builder among his peers. One of his half-inch models is on display at the New York State Museum.
Turner’s lifetime collection was offered at this sale, featuring 48 one-inch scale models made by Turner, circus lithograph posters and other paper and photo treasures. Each model is the product of this one man’s legendary commitment to accuracy in recording the important rolling stock of the circus. These models all were formed from ordinary materials, including the highest selling of these, a ticket wagon model that sold for $1,875. Other Turner collection lots in this sale included a circus video tape cassette library of parades, performances and interviews and even a group of his model building tools.
Original circus art was in short supply in this sale but met or exceeded estimates. An oil on board image of a girl on a carousel horse by Robert Wicks (American, b 1902) doubled estimates at $2,000 ($400/800) with a curious Oscar Strobel (1891-1967) watercolor of an elephant, nude woman and dog for $469 ($200/400). Two lots of Don Foote’s (American, 1931-1984) colored wardrobe sketches drew strong bids, also surpassing estimates. Foote was the creative wardrobe designer for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey in the 1970s. A group of a dozen sketches sold for $1,625 ($400/800) and a signed sketch of clown jazz band outfits along with a published article about Foote reached $938, more than doubling a $200/400 estimate.
Circus books and magazines may have been the bargains in this sale. Entire runs of magazines used for reference from Turner’s library were offered. Little Circus Wagon magazine, the journal of the Circus Model Builders International, had a run from the 1950s into the 2000s and sold for less than a dollar a pound at $63. Likewise, Bandwagon, the official publication of the Circus Historical Society with an even longer run (1940s to 2000s) was another bargain at $88. Both lots had estimates of $100/200.
Prices quoted with buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. Freedom Auctions will conduct a circus poster sale in November (date to be announced), and a major sale on February 5 as part of the Sarasota Ring of Fame Festivities. For additional information, www.freedomauctions.com or 941-725-21660.
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