Those who work for auction houses dream of moments such as this. Luke Jones, of Lawsons Auctioneers in Leichhardt, Sydney, was contacted recently by a valuer who suggested he check out the contents of a trunk stored in a client's garage. The woman thought it was of no particular value.
"I nearly fell over when I discovered what was in there," Jones recalls. "She told me she had even been thinking about throwing it out."
Once he'd picked up his jaw from the floor, Jones told the woman that what she had was indeed worth something. And, two weeks ago, the contents of that trunk sold for more than $160,000, attracting bids from the US, England and Asia, as well as Australia.
The sale was grandly titled An Auction of Houdini's Magic, Mystery, Escapology, Prestidigitation and Einstein's Handwritten Theories. As it happened, the Einstein collection, from another vendor, didn't sell - but anything related to Harry Houdini certainly did, and for prices that astonished the auction house.
One example was a selection of photos, personal letters and memorabilia, much of it signed by Houdini himself. The pre-sale estimates were $2000 to $3000, but it sold for $17,000, including the buyer's premium.
And so it went. A pair of handcuffs used by Houdini sold for $5500 (estimates were $800 to $1000). A diary compiled by Ira Davenport that was once owned by Houdini sold for $13,000. A letter and photo of Houdini, both signed, went for $4500.
Lawsons won't say who bought them, due to client confidentiality, but one of the successful bidders is likely to be David Copperfield, now one of the most famous magicians in the world, who has a private Houdini museum at his home. Another US bidder was David Haversat, perhaps the best-known collector of magic memorabilia. He is a friend of Copperfield's and confirmed that both were bidding enthusiastically.
Not confirmed, but likely, was the involvement of the producers of Houdini the Musical, due to open on Broadway this year with Hugh Jackman in the lead role.
Lawsons perhaps underestimated the power of an influential network of collectors and investors in magic memorabilia. These people are happy to pay large amounts for anything relating to Houdini.
Material relating to other magicians of the time, such as Max Malini and Ching-Ling Foo, also sold well above estimates. Malini's hand-carved cigar holder, along with some signed photos, sold for $8500. One of his stage outfits fetched $5000. Foo's pigtail, a stage prop, sold for $1000.
An Edwardian poster promoting "Professor Anderson, the Great Wizard of the North" sold for $9500 (estimates were $100 to $200) - more than the sum achieved for a rare Houdini poster, which fetched $7000.
It's fascinating to think how such exotic treasures ended up in the garage of an elderly lady living on Sydney's north shore. It turns out she's the daughter-in-law of the late Edwin Arthur Dearn, a magician and ventriloquist who was based in the Shanghai area in the first half of last century. Dearn was a member of several magic societies and an avid collector of memorabilia and books on the subject. He corresponded with other performers, including Houdini, and was a hoarder. His collection is now considered a treasure.
US bidders bought half the total value of the sale, but Australians also have an association with Houdini - he performed at the New Opera House in Melbourne in 1910 and promoted his shows by diving, handcuffed and shackled, from the Queens Bridge into the Yarra, drawing huge crowds.
Luke Jones says this was the most exciting auction he has experienced. And auctioneer Shauna Farren-Price could hardly believe the response.
There were eight phone bidders, including the three Americans with apparently unlimited budgets, and a crowd of 60 or so on the floor picking up whatever they could. Several more buyers were bidding live via the internet on artfact.com, including some from Asia. The Chinese want anything to do with their country's pre-revolution history.