Sunday, October 17, 2021

Book: David Copperfield's History of Magic


(photos by Homer Liwag, used with permission)

My readers and listeners to my podcast tend to already be magic history fans. Some however are new to magic history, others are just interested in history and they enjoy the stories of magicians. Whichever category you are part of, please pay attention to the next few paragraphs.

I remember listening to the radio on my way to work. A news report came on about a strange collection of magic that was in need of a buyer. It must have been an article in a newspaper that some radio personalities picked up to talk about. At any rate, I remember them saying it was called The Mulholland collection and it was worth 2.3 million dollars or somewhere in that price range. I also remember talking so some friends of mine and trying to figure out just how to come up with 2.3 million dollars to buy this thing, LOL. Needless to say, we didn't come up with the money. Instead, another person did. Encouraged by his friend Mike Caveney, David Copperfield purchased the Mulholland Collection. That alone was pretty exciting news. The most popular magician of the day just purchased the biggest collection of magic known to exist. What exactly was IN the collection was not known to me. I imagine some folks in the magic history world had a good idea, but I was not yet in that group, neither was David, yet. 

Over time, David would purchase numerous collections. Eventually it would become 6 times the size of the original Mulholland Collection. And slowly overtime, this new curator and his crew would create the most amazing museum of magic. The official name is the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts, it is located somewhere in Las Vegas and is not even open to the public. If you were part of the latest Magic History Conference that Bill Smith put together, you had the rare fortune of getting a tour of the museum. (I was not among the lucky participants)

The book, David Copperfield's History of Magic is a journey into David's World of Magic and frankly our world of magic. It's his enormous collection that is lovingly shared in breathtaking photos throughout the book. The photos taken by a magical artist in his own right Homer Liwag. Every single photo is a work of art. In fact, ALL of the photos in this article were taken by Homer and are used with permission (please do not copy them).

The book begins with what I believe are the two most perfect words for a book of this nature. Two simple words, "Magic Matters." As historians we know it. As performers we know it. As fans of magic we know it. And in this crazy world we live in, it's time we let others know and remind those of us who have forgotten, Magic Matters!

There are 28 Chapters in this book and they are basically in chronological order. The first being a chapter about the first english language magic book, Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft of 1584. I have seen one of these treasured books in person at another historian's collection. I would not even touch the book, knowing of it's age and it's fragile state, I only looked upon it with awe. This marks an ideal way to begin the history of magic. 

Next we have a chapter on Robert-Houdin the Father of Modern Magic. I think he needs a new title, as He was more the Father of 19th Century Magic. The images included in that chapter show the Pastry Chef of the Palais Royale, numerous posters, cornucopias used to produce items in the show, and numerous Houdin Mystery Clocks. The chapter covers a brief history of Robert Houdin and it wonderfully illustrates the importance of Houdin in the history of our art.

I'm not going to cover every chapter, but I do want to mention the next one, which is on Wyman the Wizard. Readers of my blog will know of my interest in this gentleman. In fact, the chapter also covers a magician who I've written about a lot, Harry Cooke. Both of these artists have ties to Abraham Lincoln which is why they appear in the same chapter. Within David Copperfield's collection are the very coins that Wyman the Wizard used to magically pass through the hand of Mr. Lincoln. That might be one of the most incredible pieces in the collection.

Chapter 9 focuses on the Queen of Magic, Adelaide Herrmann. Take a look at this stunning image of her dress. It has a beautiful yet haunting effect to it. You can almost see her standing there in that very dress. Being able to see the actual costumes from these old time performers is to me, more exciting than seeing the various posters. The costumes really bring the artist to life. Playbills, posters, and such are two dimensional records of a performers life and career. But when you have a costume on display its a three dimensional representation of that person. To me it is even better than seeing their props (though I do love that too) but a costume is something they wore, it was in essence a part of them.  

On Sept 7th, 1926, the warehouse where Adelaide Herrmann was storing her show, burned to the ground. All was lost. So the fact that there are still items of hers to view is astonishing! Before I move on, take one more look at that costume. So much more interesting than the costumes worn by magicians today. THAT is the costume of a true superstar of her art.

Chapter 10 is another personal favorite. This time David explores Martinka's Magic Shop. They have created a replica of Martinka's Stage with an ornate proscenium and a huge Herrmann poster that once was displayed in the shop. The photos, like all the photos in the book are impressive. The area is filled with antique Card Stars, and Spirit Dials built by the Martinka Brothers. Included in the display is an illustration of the little theater from way back in the early 1900s. There are even antique theater chairs. One can almost imagine Kellar and Houdini and Frederick Eugene Powell and others gathered around talking shop. 

Chapter 14-HOUDINI. I would imagine that this section of David's museum has been the most photographed. I can recall seeing images of this section many times in the past. And every few years the photos change because the display grows. Looking over the photos in the book, I see some of the hottest items in recent magic auctions. It is no wonder they went to this collection and frankly, it's great to see them all together. As David Copperfield has said in numerous interviews, "If Houdini were alive today, he would see his whole show right here."  That's pretty accurate. At least, the main pieces. Much of the Houdini show has been lost to time. Yet, there are items here that have never been in a collection until now. Houdini's bathtub, straight out of 278, and his bookshelf also from 278. The way the bookshelf has been set up allows a visiter to get a photo recreation of one that Houdini himself took oh so many years ago. 

In the midst of all the authentic Houdini items is a bust of Houdini from Spectral Motions Studio, a testament to the quality of their work. I believe every major Houdini poster is on display. This section of the museum alone is worth millions. IF you are a non-magician and you're reading this chapter on Houdini and viewing the images, there is just no way to walk away without being hugely impressed with this man.

Chapter 23 is called 'Blood on the Curtain'. Of course this is Richiardi Jr.. Here was a gentleman whose style inspired countless 20th Century magicians. I remember reading on Levent's Facebook page about bringing the Richiardi cases to the Copperfield museum and opening them for the first time. According to the chapter, these rare items, props, illusions, costumes and more had been in storage in Brazil since Richiardi died back in 1985. He died young, at only 62. The world was robbed of his artistry and his majesty. But to see it on display here and to read about the life of Aldo Richiardi is a real gift. 

I could go on and on about each chapter of the book, but I am going to stop here. Let me just say that each chapter contains several photos and a fine overview of the life of the performer being discussed. As a magic historian, I would have preferred longer chapters, but this is a book for the public and I believe those chapters are exactly the right length. Also, thankfully, this IS a book for the general public, because of that, it means we are not paying hundreds of dollars for the book. It is worth hundreds of dollars easily. 

Every category of magic is covered in this book: The Manipulators, The Close-up Performer, The Mentalist, The Stage Performer, the Comedy Performer, the Illusionist, the Escape Artist and more. If this were just a history of magic, it would be great to have these various images and stories in one place. But knowing that this is all together in one collection, that makes it all even more special. 

The final chapter of the book is on David Copperfield himself. I'll be honest and tell you that I have not read this chapter.  Is there any way to share his story and  do justice to a man who has done so much for the art of magic? Award Winning TV Specials, cutting edge illusions, brilliant magical presentations, touring shows that sold out more theaters than anyone on the planet, ISLANDS, his own museum and much more. I'm almost afraid to read that last chapter because I don't want the book to end...

And here is the little secret, it won't end. Sure the book will, but not the history of magic. David's place in the history of magic is as a living legend. And as magic continues so does the history. What was live and new today, is part of history tomorrow. In 10 years from now, I'd love to see an updated version of the book with more legendary performers from today. 

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the co-authors Richard Wiseman and David Britland. Richard is a reader of my blog and has been very generous to me in the past. While reading the chapter on Wyman the Wizard, I recalled the email I received from Richard sharing with me an audio track, of some of the music from Wyman's show, that he had specially made. The narrative throughout the book is wonderful and very cohesive considering there were three amazing authors. And this book would not be the same without the photographic genius of Homer Liwag. His ability to capture the beauty of magic in his photos is beyond compare.  

By the way, there is a Special Edition of the book available through Barnes and Noble which has an additional chapter on Orson Welles. There is also an autographed copy available through TalkShop.Live. I've included all the links you'll need to get your copy(s).

Let me end with this. If you have not ordered a copy of the book, please do so. Do yourself a favor and get this book. Use it to learn about the history of our cherished art. Use it for inspiration. Use it to understand that, as David Copperfield said at the beginning of the book, Magic Matters!

Exclusive Addition:


Autographed Copy:


  1. I look forward to adding this to my sagging shelving almost as much as seeing the memorabelia displayed in Baltimore a few years back, and a certain Atlas Obacura tour in DC!

    1. Atlas Obscura was fun. I did that twice. I'm gong to try and do that here in Nashville, where I am now.