I’ve been thinking a lot lately of Captain Costentenus, a wonderfully bizarre tattooed circus attraction of long ago. And of escape artist Harry Houdini. Even counterculture artist Robert Crumb fills my daydreams.
You’ll meet these odd historic characters – and I do mean characters – in the newly released Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles 2019 Price Guide. The three are featured among the many Top Lots stories found throughout the book, providing a backstory to some of the most intriguing items we came across while putting the new edition together.
As always, the new edition is filled with thousands of images, descriptions, history, values, how-to advice and loads of information designed to help you further enjoy the antiques and collectibles world. But for me, the Top Lot features illustrate everything that is so darn fascinating about the hobby.
Odd historic characters
Which gets me back to the good Captain, Harry and Mr. Crumb, who have come to define for me the book and how it comes together every year. Let’s start at the beginning ...
Cue the clowns, elephants and trapeze artists because starting with a blank slate and putting together a 704-page book filled with all new material and 4,000 images often feels like a three-ring circus. Which is why lead editor Eric Bradley, book editor Kris Manty and designer Becca Vogel are careful where they step throughout the process.
The circus world attracts larger than life characters with stories to match. Captain Costentenus was nothing if not a moveable feast of a story. How much of his story is true is unknown, but who cares? It’s a doozy.
Costentenus claimed to be descended from Greek nobility, dating back to the Ottoman Empire province of Albania. In 1867, while travelling in central Asia on a mining expedition, Costentenus was entangled in an uprising. As the story goes, he was taken prisoner and subjected to a three-month-long tattooing session as punishment.
Costentenus eventually escaped but the results of his punishment remained: he was covered head-to-toe with tattoos. Only the soles of his feet and parts of his ears went untouched. All together he had 387 figures tattooed on his body. Those images ranged from exotic animals to flowers to geometric figures to foreign writing. Historians can debate how he got them but there was no denying the tattoos were real.
So naturally he ended up working for P.T. Barnum, touring with his circus in the late 1880s. The Great Tattooed Captain and his story enthralled. It is believed Costentenus was paid $100 a day – a preposterous amount at the time – to pose for patrons as near naked as legally possible. Near the end of the century he seemingly vanished. Records of his escapades ceased.
Yet he has not faded from memory. The Captain Costentenus character was featured in The Greatest Showman, the 2017 film starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum. Recently a rare poster promoting his appearance at the Royal Aquarium in 1882 sold at a Swann Galleries auction for $6,750. No one is sure what happened to Captain Costentenus but I know where you can find him: page 242 of the Circus section in our new book.
I relate to Harry Houdini. There isn’t a deadline I’ve met where I didn’t feel like an escape artist. And much like the world of deadlines I live in, Houdini both excites me and freaks me out.
Houdini mesmerized audiences worldwide with daring acts of extrication. Shackles? Ropes? Handcuffs? Buried alive? Please. Houdini was a master. Nevertheless, it’s Houdini’s greatest and most sensational escape that gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Aptly named the “Chinese Water Torture Cell,” Houdini was placed head down into a glass-and-metal container resembling a water-filled fish tank. With his feet manacled to the top of the tank, Houdini would use a full two minutes of suspense before emerging from his watery grave unscathed. Yikes!
Houdini first performed the crazy trick in 1912 at the Circus Busch in Berlin. He continued to perform it until his death in 1926. A rare poster depicting him in mid performance sold for $114,000 at Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago, setting a record as the most expensive magic poster ever sold at public auction. You’ll find more information on Houdini and that famous poster on page 531 of the book.
Not able to extricate that kind of cash from my bank account, I keep a copy of the poster of Houdini doing the trick on my desk – simply to remind me that deadlines are not death defying after all.
Speaking of reminders, it’s good to remember regularly that weird can be beautiful. And that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.
To illustrate that point let me introduce Robert Crumb, perhaps the most famous of the artists to work in the underground comix movement in the 1960s. Crumb says he was “born weird” and his work reflects it. He gained fame as the founder of Zap Comix and for creating such counterculture icons as “Fritz the Cat” and “Mr. Natural,” as well as his “Keep on Truckin’” strip.
Crumb’s work will never be mistaken for Norman Rockwell’s. But it does demonstrate there are many roads to success. Which is why you’ll find perhaps his most utilitarian piece of “art” on page 541 in the Map Section of AT 2019.
In 1970, using a $5,000 advance from his publisher for his Head Comix book, Crumb and his wife, Dana, bought a former commune in Potter Valley, California, to escape the madness of San Francisco’s hippie scene. There, they lived with young son Jesse, while Crumb tended goats and chickens as he continued to pump out Underground comix books.
To help friends find his place, Crumb produced a hand-drawn “Potter Valley Map.” The map shows the route from San Francisco to his home, some 150 miles north. In the upper left, Crumb added a “Come to Beautiful Potter Valley” illustration of Flakey Foont, one of his comic book characters, driving an old car.
The map was never published or seen outside of Crumb’s close circle of friends. Yet at a Heritage auction, it sold for more than $5,000.
Our world is filled with characters, people who found success daring to be different. One of the joys of this job, and this life, is discovering their path. A good map comes in handy.
“Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles 2019 Price Guide” Paperback, 6 x 9, 704 pages, 4000 color photographs Item# R7879 ISBN-13: 9781440248764 Retail Price: $24.99 Order online at www.krausebooks.com (search for R7879); Call 855-864-2579 (M-F 8 am - 5pm MDT)