Musical Monkey Conjuror Automaton, Jean Phalibois, ca. 1870s Credit: Potter & Potter Auctions, Inc.

In the 1972 thriller film Sleuth, a crime fiction writer named Andrew Wyke (played by Laurence Olivier) plots revenge on his wife’s paramour in an isolated manor filled with games, costumes, and automata. The automatons serve as lifeless witnesses to his bizarre robbery setup, and the camera often zooms in on their facial expressions during key moments of conflict in order to animate the rising tension. A jovial sailor is triggered to cackle at Wyke’s unpleasant jokes, while others perform acts of foreshadowing—like a clown who waves goodbye before a particularly fraught struggle. One of the prominent mechanical figures from the film, a nearly life-size magician with expressive eyebrows, is set to be auctioned at the magicana-centric Potter & Potter Auctions in North Center on August 24. It’s part of a suite of 154 vintage and modern automatons, marionettes, wind-up toys, and other humanoid figures dating back to 1860.

Automatons are machines built to follow a predetermined set of actions, often to the confusion or amazement of the viewer. Although stories referencing automaton-like mechanics have been told since the days of ancient Greece, the most notable forms were built in Paris’s Marais neighborhood during the Golden Age of Automata (1860-1910) by a group of seven key manufacturers. The term “automata” comes from the Greek verb for “acting of one’s own will,” and in many cases the figures’ sleek yet looping actions do dazzle the viewer into believing they might be moving according to their own design.

<i>Clown Acrobat with Two Chairs Automaton</i>, Vichy, ca. 1895
Clown Acrobat with Two Chairs Automaton, Vichy, ca. 1895Credit: Potter & Potter Auctions, Inc.

“That is what the automaton is: a series of movements that create a story within themselves,” says Michael Kam, a retired attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, and the sole source for the figures in the auction. Kam has been a part of the International Brotherhood of Magicians for the past 58 years. Magic was his entree into an obsession with automaton figures, both their origins and their precise inner workings. One of his favorite magicians, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (also known as the father of modern conjuring), was a horologist and automaton maker, two hobbies that go hand in hand because of the clockwork that powers many automatons. Some of Robert-Houdin’s best-known pieces were “mystery clocks” that seemed to operate from clear pedestals, to the amazement of the viewer.

Although it’s large, Kam amassed his collection in just under 15 years. Much like the cunning gamesman of Sleuth, he too enjoyed filling the rooms of his home with his hoards of mechanical friends, placing the figures at least ten deep in his guest room, lining the walls of his office with 20 more, and even placing a large number around his bedroom (that he shares with his wife). Kam keeps videos of his collection on his phone in case he happens to meet someone who might not be familiar with automatons, and he describes each of their intricate movements with the pride of a parent whose child has just managed to take their first step. Initially he limited his collection to just magicians, but as he continued to collect he became attracted to automata that performed acrobatic acts and figures that could actually smoke cigars or cigarettes with the help of embedded bellows.

Potter & Potter Auctions is the only auction house in the world that specifically sells magicana, such as books, tricks, posters and prints, and other “allied arts” ephemera like vintage coin-op games and rare toys. Owner Gabe Fajuri has been a regular at magic conventions since he was a 12-year-old in Detroit, and moved on to collecting and selling magic miscellany when he was just 15. His dad and current business partner, Sami, is also a collector, and he was more than happy to encourage Gabe’s early business efforts, driving him to conventions long before he got his license. But Fajuri’s greatest mentor was the Chicago magician and collector Jay Marshall. Fajuri first met him when he was 13 and visited Magic Inc., Marshall’s Lincoln Square shop, during a family vacation. They became better acquainted at a convention a year or two later.

“When I moved to Chicago,” Fajuri says, “I started to go [to Magic Inc.] every weekend, and then one day, with the chutzpah of a 21-year-old, I asked to go upstairs, not realizing that he didn’t let people do that. Then I kept doing that on subsequent weekends. Eventually he would say, ‘Hey, I am driving to this convention, do you need a ride?’ Or ‘I am going to Las Vegas, do you want to join?’ I certainly came late to that party. He was 85 when he died, and a lot of people had known him way longer, but I knew him fairly well for the last four years of his life. We went on a lot of trips together in those few years.”

This brief yet deep friendship led Fajuri to be chosen as the appraiser of Marshall’s multimillion-dollar collection after the magician’s death in 2005. It took Fajuri years to inventory, track, and sell the pieces. It was the first auction he handled personally, and effectively the start of Potter & Potter. Since his time digging through Marshall’s collection, Fajuri has continued to expand his knowledge of the magic arts. He sourced all of the posters and antiques that line the Chicago Magic Lounge, and is bursting with enough historical magic facts to take you on an hours-long walking tour of Chicago, dropping specific details such as where magic magazine the Sphinx was founded in 1902.

Over the years the auction house has sold extremely rare magic-oriented ephemera. Harry Houdini’s three-sheet “Water Torture Cell” poster sold in February 2017 for $114,000, one of the highest prices for a magic item ever sold at auction, second only to the torture cell itself. Potter & Potter has also sold a $40,000 arcade game, a set of Houdini’s handcuffs, and a book about cheating at cards called Faro Exposed that went for $24,000. David Copperfield, David Blaine, and Criss Angel are all regular customers.

<i>The Great Fishtank in the Sky Automaton</i>, Keith Newstead, ca. 2000.
The Great Fishtank in the Sky Automaton, Keith Newstead, ca. 2000.Credit: Potter & Potter Auctions, Inc.

Although automatons might not be directly considered magic objects, explains Fajuri, the dazzling creations are considered a magic-adjacent subject. “My interest is in the reverse engineering,” he says. “It’s not so much how it performs, but more about how does someone think that up and then reverse engineer the mechanism that doesn’t exist for any other purpose other than to accomplish that specific function? I am interested in the thinking and the ingenuity behind that.”

Often automatons have been used to assist a live magician’s act by performing their own tricks. In one 1920s-era piece from the auction, a tuxedo-clad magician moves a hoop over his levitating assistant as if there’s no connection between her fabric-covered body and the table below. In another from 1860, the oldest piece in the collection, a tiny magician makes a die, a loaf of bread, three balls, an apple, and two pears appear and disappear from a set of miniature silver cups. The latter, like many, is set to music, adding another element of pageantry to the decades-old clockwork objects.

The magician automaton is the only piece that actually played a role in Sleuth, but several others in Kam’s collection share particular movements or a similar appearance with members of the film’s nonliving cast. A blond piano player created in the 1890s plays a piano-harp decorated with angels, roses, and fruits; a drinking bear from the 1940s pours and consumes cup after cup of real water; and several acrobat automatons made between 1890 and 1985 perform complex tricks using ladders or chairs.

<i>Tick Bird Visits the Museum Automaton</i>, Philip Lowndes, 2015.
Tick Bird Visits the Museum Automaton, Philip Lowndes, 2015.Credit: Potter & Potter Auctions, Inc.

In order to demystify the craft for noncollectors, Kam has decided to fund a documentary titled Life and Other Illusions that aims to explore the world of automatons, both vintage and modern, in a practical way that goes beyond their obvious eccentricities.

“I always want to know how things work,” he says “[That’s] the mystery of the older pieces. Many people haven’t heard of these things, and when they see them they become fascinated. That is what the documentary is about. It’s not just about the automata; it is how they work.”   v

Automata: Life and Other Illusions Sat 8/24, 10 AM, Potter & Potter Auctions, 3759 N. Ravenswood, 773-472-1442, Potter & Potter will preview the auction on Thursday, August 22, from 5:30 to 7:30 PM. There will be demonstrations of the machines in addition to information about their origins and inner workings, perhaps with a few animated eyebrows adding dramatic tension to what is estimated to be an $800,000 collection.