Montreal’s unique Houdini acquisition contains moments of magic

WATCH: There’s magic at the McCord

MONTREAL —  The McCord Museum in Montreal has acquired “one of the five most important private collections” of memorabilia related to magic, especially Harry Houdini, the museum wrote in a prepared release.

“We just acquired a great collection of magic posters, ephemeras and rare books,” said Christian Vachon, a curator at the museum.

The lithographs that comprise much of the collection were never intended for posterity — they were mostly used as pulp promotional posters that were pasted to walls. Some magicians, like Harry Kellar and Alexander Herrmann, would paste over the posters of their rivals, reducing the number of examples that survived.

Because the printers took pride in some of the more visually striking lithographs, they would set better examples aside, which is how they weathered the years in such good shape, Vachon said.

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The collection holds part of the secret to Houdini’s success. Living from 1874 to 1926, he was considered a media pioneer for his times.

Christian Vachon stands in front of a poster promoting Houdini’s famous upside-down water torture escape. Global News

“He was a master of the media, at the time,” said Alan Greenberg, a Montreal magician who idolized the master magician during his formative years. Greenberg once broke Houdini’s timed straitjacket escape record dangling upside down from a crane in Montreal.

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The museum’s collection’s estimated worth is around $3 million, and also includes posters from other magicians from the heyday of magic in the early part of the 20th century. Many of the posters of Houdini’s contemporaries include images of devils and ghosts in an effort to stress the supernatural nature of their performances.

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Houdini, however, rejected mysticism as a part of his act. He made waves among other magicians because he stressed that his illusions, escapes and tricks were incredible because they were real and physically possible. And he would give talks alongside his acts debunking the supernatural myth of magic.

“You’ll never see devils or crosses in his stuff,” Greenberg said.

During a stop in Montreal he made one of those lectures at what was then McGill’s student union and is now the same McCord Museum where his memorabilia is housed. A student confronted him who struck him in the abdomen, answering a challenge that Houdini had frequently made; and the magician died two weeks later from complications that arose.

“He actually dies in Detroit but the punch that causes his death happened in Montreal,” Greenberg said.

The exhibit that could result from the acquisition isn’t slated to open until 2017. But the curator of the McCord is ecstatic to ponder what it could look like, almost like someone about to watch magic.

“His reputation was so big,” Vachon said. “Huge.”

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