Published: September 12, 2023
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring; Photos Courtesy Freedom Auction Company
BARABOO, WIS. & SARASOTA, FLA. — Brian Hollifield and Freedom Auction Company conducted three sales of circus antiques and related ephemera on August 20, 26 and September 3. The August 20 auction took place in Baraboo, Wis., and offered just over 100 lots from the Tegge Circus Archive. Like a traveling circus, the next two sales took place in Sarasota, Fla., with more than 150 lots being sold to benefit the Circus Historical Society being offered on August 26 and another 427 lots on September 3, in “The Big One- Circus Memorabilia Auction.” Of the nearly 700 lots offered in all three sales, more than 92 percent found new homes, largely to buyers in the United States, with some going to farther-flung owners, primarily those in England, France or Australia.
“We always considered it one major sale split three ways,” Hollifield said, when Antiques and The Arts Weekly caught up with him after the Labor Day weekend. “Overall, we’re very pleased with how things did.” He noted that the largest surprise of the event was more than two dozen lots of photo albums from the Joseph Bradbury circus archive, which came at the end of the second sale. Because interest in the collection was so great, selling the 20 lots took about an hour.
Posters, many of which had been restored, were among the largest and most popular category, fielding some of the sales’ highest bids.
Flying highest of all lots offered at $13,750 was a one sheet lithograph poster, published by Strobridge in 1879, for the Great London Circus with Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie that depicted the Fitchburg Steam Engine Co engine and boiler, which was advertised to generate “light as bright as day.” The 29-by-38¼-inch original sheet was described in the catalog as having loss typical for its age but that it had been expertly restored and being “very attractive and historically significant.” Hollifield confirmed that the buyer was a circus collector and historian in the United States.
Another Strobridge lithograph poster — this one dated 1909 — depicted Jupiter the Balloon Horse, which was a star act in Barnum & Bailey’s rotation. The one-sheet poster, which was deemed “a very attractive and scarce” example, was mounted on Chartex and had a single center fold as it had originally been issued. It soared past expectations to bring $10,313.
Another Barnum & Bailey poster that exceeded expectation was an 1889 Strobridge lithograph that featured portraits of the two legendary showmen as well as five scenes of “dancing trick elephants executing a ball-room quadrille.” It sold for $6,563.
The greatest tragedy in American circus history occurred in Hartford, Conn., on July 6, 1944, when the big top at a Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey show became engulfed in flames; it killed approximately 165 people. After the tragedy, the mayor of Hartford asked that all posters be destroyed so the memory of the event did not linger. Any remaining example is a rare survivor, justifiably sought-after by collectors around the world. Hollifield said an American buyer acquired it, for $625.
Buffalo Bill Wild West posters were a highlight of the August 26 sale, with nearly a dozen on offer and attracting interest from circus collectors as well as Wild West show collectors. Leading the group at $8,750 was a 1908 Strobridge lithograph half-sheet poster that was designed in 1908 but could be dated to 1909 because of the mention of “Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East [show], which accompanied Buffalo Bill for just one year, in 1909. The colorful artwork depicted the Native American woman named “Arrow-head,” who was called the “Belle of the Tribe.”
“Chief Iron Tail” was the iconic image of another half-sheet Strobridge lithograph poster, which also dated to 1909 because of the inclusion of the Pawnee Bill show. Estimated at $5/8,000, it found a new home with an American buyer for $7,500
Equestrienne extraordinary Miss May Lillie was the subject of a third two-sheet Strobridge lithograph poster from 1906. It galloped past its $3/5,000, finally coming to rest at $6,875. Rounding out the choice Buffalo Bill posters at $5,000 was a one-sheet Enquirer printing from the 1905 French tour that featured several Native American vignettes.
Photographs were another popular category in all three sales. Bringing a category-high price of $4,063 was a Victorian photo album from the Wallett Circus Family Collection. Featuring approximately 60 cabinet card photographs, the lot included images of William Frederick Wallett, Mademoiselle Turnour, the Flying Dillons, the Riding Walletts, gymnasts, equestrians, trapeze artists and more, covering nearly 100 years of circus history. According to the catalog, the Wallett family performed with the “who’s who” in shows including Forepaugh, Barnum & Bailey, Walter L. Main, Gentry, Yankee Robinson, Howes, Sun, Hunt, Downie, Hagenbeck Wallace and Seils-Sterling, among others.
The top lot in the first sale on August 20 was also photos, an archive of more than 3,500 35mm slides from the 1940s to 1980. Cataloged as “a massive assortment of images spanning 50-plus years of traveling American railroad and truck shows, gathered from multiple sources / photographers over the decades,” the lot documented Ringling-Barnum, Dailey Bros, Cole Bros, Clyde Beaty-Cole Bros, Carson & Barnes and Hoxie Bros. Estimated at just $200/400, the lot finally closed at $1,625.
Another lot described as “massive” featured approximately 200 VHS videotape cassettes, covering an estimated 400 to 500 hours of rare, unusual and unseen archival footage that had been gathered from around the world. It included theatrical agency promotional videos of acts seeking employment; privately shot documentations of countless circuses large and small, sideshow attractions, carnival footage, burlesque and girl show material, even film transfers from vintage 8mm and 16mm motion picture films, television news clips, broadcast specials and documentaries, going back to the 1920s. The buyer — who paid $750 for it — will need to clear their calendars for the foreseeable future to watch it all.
Clowns. Regardless of your feelings about them, they are an indispensable part of circus history. One of the most famous clowns in history was Emmett Kelly (1898-1979), who based his character — “Weary Willie” — on the hobos of the Great Depression. A painting of Kelly by Robert Wicks (American, Twentieth Century) achieved $2,000.
Clown props were also part of the sales. A pair of vintage clown shoes made by Griffin Theatrical Shoe Co that was colorfully rendered in red, white and gray leather in a 3-D cube pattern, had provenance to the Scott collection. They walked off with a new owner who paid $900 for them. An ostrich clown walk-around prop, 1975-78, which had been worn by celebrated clown Mark Anthony, sold within estimate, for $313. According to the catalog, Anthony trouped for many years with Ringling, Clyde Beaty, Wirth’s Circus in Australia and Vargas circuses, sculpted props from blocks of foam rubber. He made this one for his long-time friend and colleague, Diamond “Jim” Parker.
Circus history is full of notable figures; for late Twentieth Century American circus fans, Gunther Gebel Williams (1934-2001) was one such performer, being one of the greatest animal trainers of his era. A utilitarian elephant hook that had his initials carved into the 26-inch-long staff, earned $531.
Unsurprisingly, Victorian-era circus clothing, props and other collectibles are rare. Flying to $875 was a circus aerialist’s wardrobe that included sequined and gilt metal fringed trunks and cuffs. Also from the same period, a brooch made of tiger claws and mounted with 22K gold, achieved $688.
Freedom Auction Company’s next sale will take place in Sarasota, Fla., in February 2024, during “Circus Week,” when numerous circus-related events are planned.
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. For information, www.freedomauctions.com or 941-725-2166.
September 26, 2023
September 26, 2023
September 26, 2023
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