What promises to be the most important collection of circus memorabilia to hit the market in a decade will be available during the auction of the William Brinley Collection of Circus Memorabilia at noon on Saturday, Feb. 16, at Nest Egg Auction Gallery in Meriden, Conn.
“The last time there was a circus collection sold of this magnitude, it was in 1998, and it was in Connecticut,” said Carl Brechlin, Nest Egg’s auctioneer. “There can’t be that many collections out there of this depth. This man is 90 years old and this is a lifetime collection that started when he was nine years old.”
Brinley is best known for his “World Famous Miniature Circus,” a collection of 5,000 carved figures and pieces of circus equipment that he himself hand-carved in a three-fourths of an inch to one-foot working scale to replicate a typical 1930s traveling circus, based primarily on the Christy Brothers Circus that came to Wallingford, Conn., in 1936.
The historically accurate 1,100-square-foot miniature circus, which includes such details as a dropped recess floor in the ticket wagon used to hide the money, will be sold in the second part of the auction, which will be offered as a single lot by confidential sealed bidding sometime in March. It is widely recognized as one of the finest examples of its type in the country, important both historically and as folk art.
The first part of the auction will include approximately 550 lots and focus on the vast collection of posters, photographs and ephemera collected by Brinley during his many years touring the country with his original miniature circus, starting in the 1930s, when he was hired by Hopalong Cassidy to promote upcoming Wild West shows.
Brinley is a renowned circus aficionado who cultivated friendships with both performers and organizers from a wide variety of circuses, including Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, Cole Brothers, Hagenbeck-Wallace, Al. G. Barnes, Barnett, Biller, Christiani Wallace, Sparks and Clyde Beatty, among many others.
Included among the lots will be small hand-carved treasures such as bandwagons, trucks and tents that are not part of either of Brinley’s two complete miniature circuses. Also included will be ephemera dating from the 1890s to the 1970s, including items from European circuses.
This picture of the Ringling Brothers side show cast is by Edward J. Kelty, the most famous and most sought after circus photographer of the 20th century. The sale includes hundreds of Kelty photos.
Brinley also amassed a vast collection of photographs numbering in the thousands that, in some cases, will be sold in lots of 100 or more. Among the photographs are Kelty shots of bigtops and sideshows; rare photos of the Hartford circus fire of July 6, 1944, that claimed 168 lives; signed photos of the various sideshow freaks depicted in Brinley’s carvings, including Mishu the Midget and Col. Casper, who was billed as the world’s smallest MC.; a disturbing photo of lifeless parade horses that had just been struck by lightning; photos of circus train wrecks; and many photos of one of Brinley’s favorite performers, D’Deppo the Clown.
Other items in the collection include an unposted, mint condition Ringling Brothers circus billboard for Hershey, Pa., measuring 12-feet-by-22 feet; accounts payable checks signed by a Ringling brother in 1912; a circus animal catalog from 1951 listing the costs of orangutans and Bengal tigers.
“He spent a lifetime collecting these and you can be sure that hidden treasures will be everywhere,” said Brechlin. “So much of circus collecting is about finding that obscure piece and this auction will provide collectors of circus memorabilia with the perfect opportunity to pick up that perfect item to complete their collection.”
Classic Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus poster from the Brinley collection, on the block at Nest Auctions, Feb. 16.
Brechlin noted that the sheer quantity of the collection makes it impossible to catalog every single item.
“There are many packed lots containing hundreds of uncatalogued items,” Brechlin said. “Every serious circus collector and dealer needs to participate.”
One name connected to this auction that is sure to get every dealer’s attention is Edward J. Kelty, the New York City-based Cecil B. DeMille of circus photographers.
Utilizing an immense banquet camera, Kelty created 12-by-20 inch negatives in his mobile studio as he traveled the country with circuses in the 1920s and 1930s. Kelty had a particularly keen eye when it came to capturing the human oddities and strange attractions that were so much a part of circus life. He also was known for photographing large groups of people, sometimes more than a thousand in a single shot. His photographs are included in Brinley’s collection and they will be described in depth in the catalog.
Brinley is Member #5 of the Circus Model Builders, and a longtime member of the Circus Fans Association. The auction will certainly include a wide array of ephemera related to those groups.
Also included are performer contracts, checks, correspondence, books (many author signed), route cards, programs, magazines, performer autographs, letters Christmas cards, calendars and other items related to clowns, midgets, acrobats, equestrians, and sideshow freaks who participated in everything ranging from the most famous circuses to obscure regional and charity shows during the heyday of the circus.
Brinley’s miniature circus was featured on The Ed Sullivan Show and the Gary Moore Show, and displayed at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, all during the 1950s and 1960s. The original version is now on display at the third-floor gallery of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn.
At 1,000 square feet, it is smaller than the newer version that will be auctioned next month. The original version, originally called Bill’s Circus, was renamed “Hopalong Cassidy’s circus” in 1950. It toured the country in advance of Cassidy’s Wild West Show.
Brinley donated the permanent model circus to the Barnum Museum in 1968, but the display had to be altered slightly when the museum was re-designed in the late 1980s. Some pieces date back to 1926, when Brinley saw his first traveling circus at age 9. He has been rendering every detail in miniature ever since, using a jackknife and a jigsaw. He carved the figures out of cigar boxes that were saved for him at the corner store.
Another Kelty pic, this one of Jean Woodward, a performer with the Christy Brothers circus.
Previews are scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 14 and Friday, Feb. 15, from noon to 6 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 16, from 9 a.m. to Noon. Online bids will be accepted at proxybid.com/nesteggauctions, along with limited telephone bids.
Five percent of the total sales will be donated to Shriners Orthopedic Hospital in Springfield, Mass.
Nest Egg Auctions is located at 30 Research Parkway in Meriden, Conn.
For more information, call 203-630-1400, go online to www.nesteggauctions.com.