The Shame of the Ricky Jay Collection Sotheby's Auction

Gentle reader,

Greetings from your friendly historic Los Angeles sightseeing tour company, now offering digital programming until we can again organize groups to gather and explore the city we love.

Today and tomorrow, part of a great Los Angeles collection of books and ephemera is being auctioned off live on the internet by Sotheby’s in New York City. And it’s really bumming us out.

As a young man, magician, scholar and actor Ricky Jay (1946-2018) collected material about the history of low-brow performance cheaply and with a great eye, benefiting from the knowledge imparted by skilled booksellers who might sell a book, poster or scrap of ephemera to one person, but who educated everyone who read the catalog. Each listed item was an opportunity for fresh scholarship and unexpected connections, opening doors into forgotten rooms where fascinating people once amused and astonished their audience.

It was from this material that Ricky Jay wrote his wonderful book Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women (Villard, 1986), bringing a lost world of strange performers alive to modern readers and television viewers. His writing captivated us, inspiring us to dig deeper in neglected sections of archives, to ferret out forgotten marvels and draw connections that had been lost to time.

When he died three years ago, we immediately wondered what would become of the collection. To some people, that might sound morbid or in poor taste, but it was just an expression of our respect for his questing mind and all the remarkable material he’d gathered in life and hadn’t had the time to write about.

Ricky Jay was dead, but his archive was very much alive. Would it be kept together so that writers and performing artists could draw on it to tell stories and create entertainments that bridge the past and present? Would it remain on his shelves, untouched, for decades? Would there be a sale worthy of the collection?

We know the answer now, and it’s disappointing to see how few resources Sotheby’s auction house has devoted to disseminating his life’s work. As the New York Times reports, they only spent a couple of weeks culling some of the more valuable items for sale, excluding collectors who aren’t wealthy as well as the oddball material that the collector likely treasured more highly than the big ticket items.

The online auction listing itself achieves the astonishing effect of making Ricky Jay’s collection dull!

There are few images from the multi-page items, and scarcely any narrative interpretation. They didn’t even bother to translate playbills written in other languages. Instead of telling stories, the auction house makes Monty Python jokes and rushes to profit.

As the auction proceeds today, and we watch Ricky Jay’s treasures fall under the hammer, it feels like a death in the family.

How we wish the collection had fallen into the hands of an obsessive and learned book or ephemera dealer who could have given it the loving, scholarly and serious send off that it deserved, and produced an auction catalog that would be a suitable companion for Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women on library shelves around the world.

But in the end, every collector knows the day will come when their treasures are cast back off into the sea of human commerce, or the landfill. Like iron shavings in the sand, they’ll go where they need to be. And new collections will be formed, in the shape of new and seeking minds.

Of all the pieces in his great collection, on his death we thought of the assembly of rotted celluloid dice we saw on display at the Museum of Jurassic Technology early in our courtship.

Most people would see these dice as worthless junk. They can’t be used in gambling, and their decay spreads dust and gas that can infect other old plastic pieces nearby—keep them far away from grandma’s Lucite handbag! But under glass and spotlights, Ricky Jay’s dice made us think about the passage of time, human trickery and the beauty of small things that no longer serve a purpose. And did you ever notice how much the pips on a die look like the eye sockets in a skull? Memento mori.

It’s weird little treasures like the dead dice that aren’t to be found anywhere in the Sotheby’s catalog. Of course, there’s no money in such things, but that was never what this collection was about.

yours for Los Angeles,

Kim & Richard


In the latest subscriber's edition of this newsletter—$10/month, cheap!—Visiting time capsule mansions of Redlands, in the footsteps of Leo Politi—a beautiful book inspires an architectural treasure hunt, and brings one of our favorite Southern California artists into view.


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