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Early circus banners and posters taking center stage

Vintage circus posters and banners are among the lots headlining Mosby & Co.'s May 16 auction.

FREDERICK, Md. — A selection of 11 early circus sideshow banners and more than 50 circus posters is headlining Mosby & Co.’s May 16 auction. The auction will be held at Mosby’s gallery in Washington, D.C., with Internet bidding facilitated by

Johnson banner

Largest circus banner ever painted by Fred Johnson. Measuring 14 feet by 46-1/3 feet features 33 clowns, and was last used during the Illinois State Fair in the 1970s.

The hot ticket within the banner offering is a 46-foot-long example that Mosby’s owner, Keith Spurgeon, says is the largest one Fred G. Johnson (American, 1892-1990) ever painted. “Fred Johnson was the Picasso of sideshow banner artists. His work was even shown at the World’s Fair of 1933. Today, his art is in high demand,” said Spurgeon. “The art on this particular banner is all clowns. It’s immense and would have covered the entire front of a circus tent. It’s a well-known, well-documented piece, probably from the 1960s, and has been in the same collection for many years,” Spurgeon said.

Two very rare banners painted by Neiman Eisman (d. 1956), both exhibiting a monkey theme, came from a California collection. “Eisman is the man who got Fred Johnson started, and he worked alongside him as a blocker. Eisman had his own very distinctive style of painting and was known for his highly detailed backgrounds,” said Spurgeon. “We’re very fortunate to be able to offer these two banners, because Eisman’s work just never comes up for sale. Any knowledgeable collector would confirm that.”

From the same California collection comes a small grouping of circus posters covering a 50-year timespan from 1910 to about the 1960s. Among them is an extremely colorful and profusely illustrated poster for the Tom Mix Circus, promoting a guaranteed live appearance by cowboy star Mix and his horse Tony, that Spurgeon says he has never seen before, either in person or in print.

The toy section of the sale includes a DC-area collection amassed by a TV production company executive. In addition to many television-themed vehicles – TV camera trucks,



cars, jeeps, etc. – the collection features are a number of Coca-Cola-related toys. Additional tin toys to be auctioned include productions by Marx and many other desirable brands. All are in excellent condition.

Some 50-60 pieces of antique advertising were sourced “from a California estate collection built over 45 years that no one knows about,” Spurgeon said. “Everything is in outstanding condition.” Among the items in the collection are early country store items, straight razors and pristine porcelain signs, including one that advertises jewelry and watch repair; and a travel agency sign that Spurgeon said he has ever seen before.

Other highlight (from various consignors) include a 1930s Coca-Cola neon clock, 1930s themed non-sports collector cards by Goudey and other gum companies; and a pair of circa-1900 matched brass beer taps, each 24 inches tall and designed to replicate swans’ necks.

Some rare and unusual historical aviation relics have been secured for the May 16 auction. An original, unused propeller for a World War I de Havilland DH5 fighter plane presumably never left the aircraft factory where it was made. Only 500 such planes were produced during the First World War, and none of them has survived, Spurgeon said.

Also “impossible to find,” according to Spurgeon, is the pair of original wicker passenger seats from a circa-1925 Ford Tri-Motor airplane. “Things like these chairs are found only in museums. Collectors are very keen to find objects of this type, but they never show up at auction, so we might see some strong competition on auction day.”

A popular category in past Mosby sales has been tribal items from the South



Pacific/Oceana and Africa. This time the ethnographic attractions come in the form of two Fijian war clubs, a very fine Hawaiian gourd calabash (bowl) and a few African pieces with provenance from the late Irwin Hersey, who was a knowledgeable and respected collector from the 1950s through1990s.

Three-dozen 19th-century sterling and coin silver “monkey” spoons will be auctioned. The unusual spoons were commissioned by Dutch settlers in the Hudson River Valley to commemorate noteworthy occasions. Their name is thought to have come from the looped shape of their handles, which allows them to dangle, similarly to the way monkeys loop their hands and tails around tree limbs and hang freely. Adding elegance from another era is a collection of 80 decorative stickpins – some figural, some jeweled, and all very attractive.

Bidders should be prepared for many other surprises to surface, Spurgeon said. “Quite a few things haven’t been unpacked yet, including two boxes from a Texas collector who buys across the board but always goes for quality above everything else.”

Mosby & Co.’s Saturday May 16 auction will begin at 10 a.m. Eastern Time. The preview will be held on auction day from 8-10 a.m.; and on Friday, May 15 from noon till 5 p.m., or other times by appointment. Mosby & Co. is located at 5714-A Industry Lane, Frederick, MD 21704. For additional information on any item in the auction or to schedule a private preview, call 240-629-8139 or email View the online catalog at Visit Mosby & Co. at