Ricky Jay is a collector. If you've followed his career, even in periphery, you know that his magic, his acting, his public masquerade are but spokes on the hub of his true passion: the acquisition, study, and understanding of rare magical and performatory tomes, ephemera, and lore. Mr. Jay is a scholar of such, but he is not an academic or bound to an institution apart from one of his own making. He is an unique university, with a lone tenured professor, a single student, and — thankfully for us — a rather robust publication department.
He is best known, within his profession in the magical arts, for the superlative glory of his close-up work with cards (and occasionally hurling them and sticking them into large fruit). His regard in this profession may seem larger than my previous assignment of it to a mere "spoke" — as might his successful character-actor career — when it is surely these capacities that grant him the funding for his collection and scholarship (and, in fact, the hub-spoke metaphor stumbles here, for in the physical world the spoke does not compel the center. But then, if one were to set a wheel to spin, the centrifugal force might define the order as I have). That is to say, the money comes in, and the money — as it does for any collector — goes to the auction house, or fellow collector who happens to be thinning their catalog.
But here is the heart of it: his collection is what allowed Mr. Jay his unique take on magic and entertaining. With such a library, Mr. Jay is able to fully articulate Nabokov's rules for good readers, that one should have an imagination, a memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense. So, given his library, and having then the imagination to read well, the memory to recall his topics, a dictionary (and thesaurus, as anybody who has witnessed his patter or writing can attest), and the artistic sense to take these disparate historical inputs and spin them into stage shows that both marveled with their sublime skill and craft, and also startled for their stylistic lack of embarrassing modern magical pretense (although, certainly, on occasion, with a subtle wink, embracing a sort of Mellvillian riverboat conman affectation, the hallmark of the street performer's garb, bridging the society they keep, from the society they bilk), it is no surprise that Mr. Jay achieved the heights of performing arts that he did. He proofed the theorem; should our society collapse, Mr. Jay will always have a profession, and that would be the exchange of coins (us) for providing wonders (him). And no doubt, his off-hours would be spent recording his memories and knowledge into books for the future Ricky Jays to find.
Susan Sontag wrote about collectors in her book The Volcano Lover:
Of course to show off one's possessions may seem like boasting, but then the collector did not invent or fabricate these things, he is but their humble servant. He does not praise himself in exhibiting them, he offers them humbly for the admiration of others. If the objects a collector has were of his own making, or even if they were a legacy, then it would indeed seem like boasting. But building a collection, the anxious activity of inventing one own's inheritance, frees one from the obligation of reticence. For the collector to show off his collection is not bad manners. Indeed, the collector, like the imposter, has no existence unless he goes public, unless he shows what he is or has decided to be. Unless he puts his passions on display.
Mr. Jay has put his collection on display many times over. He was the publisher and proprietor of a rather infamous periodic newsletter which drew heavily from it, and which lead to his other books.
His particular interest turns its acutest attention on odd, unique, and surprising performers. As with any collector, who may start first with a broad interest that, as the collection grows, become more focused and more specific, Jay found himself taken by a man named Matthias Buchinger.
"Matthias Buchinger was a twenty-nine-inch tall phocomelia overachiever." Jay informs us in the first sentence of his latest book, Matthias Buchinger: "The Greatest German Living". Then:
He was a master of micrography, the art of forming perfect, tiny letters with pen and ink. Even the most accomplished calligraphers rarely mastered it. He has been called an "extraordinary microscopic penman," "the most remarkable micrographist of his day." His calligraphy, said to be "something marvelous," was proclaimed "the most wonderful the world has ever seen."
But a fine calligrapher, however interesting, is not the only story here.
What led to his billing as "The Little Man of Nuremberg" and more hyperbolically, "The Greatest German Living," however, was not only his mastery of these skills but his unconventional physical condition. He was born without legs or hands. He was by turns lauded and denigrated, celebrated and denied the right to perform, and declared dead long before his actual demise at age sixty-five. He survived three wives and widowed a fourth, and they collectively bore him fourteen children. He was the subject of souvenir prints, monographs, and elegies, and his art is displayed in the collection of research institutions and major museums.
Pieces from Mr. Jay's collection of Buchinger ephemera were recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this book which is being examined on on this very page you are indulging me by reading, is the catalog from this exhibition.
Which is unfair, because calling this book an "exhibition catalog" is akin to calling Moby Dick a cetacea catalog. This is a book showing the Matthias Buchinger ephemera shown at the Met, yes, but more, it is a book of how the collector collects, and a most dedicated retelling of the spark from which the collector's passion flares, not to mention also a fine biography of the collected gentleman. This is a rare thing, hiding under that title "catalog", and in the fine hands of Siglio press, it is a handsome volume, beautifully printed, and elaborately decorated.
A true collector prefers not to acquire in bulk (any more than hunters want the game simply driven past them), is not fulfilled by collecting another's collection: mere acquiring or accumulating is not collecting.
…Every collector is potentially (if not actually) a thief.
The hunt is always ringed by frustration. There is always another who wishes to collect what you want to collect. If there weren't the object being collected would be worthless; its very value is a marker of its desirability. Any collector will tell you that the thrill of discovery, the adrenaline pulse of finding something of value to you that possibly may be had at a fair bargain, renders the dead ends and frustrations as flour and sugar in the mix, where the successes are the yeast. All are needed for a good rise, but without the yeast there is no air, there is no loaf, there is no dinner.
Along his travels, Jay encounters more than one rival / friend in his desire to collect Buchinger memorabilia. Sometimes, they come to terms. In one auction, Jay's more modest-budget was used as a line-in-the sand: if the item went below, or up to, his bid, the item was his. If it pushed above, his friend was free to bid, in a gentlemen's bargain to curb frustration with the other.
There is also the time where a coveted, and promised, print was accidentally misfiled in a collection of some 50,000 objects. To have the thing on the tips of your fingers, and then have it torn away — not by malice or some gamesmanship, but through poor stewardship — makes the frustration all the more palpable, yet toothless.
Buchinger is so unlikely a character that Jay felt need to address suspicions head-on in his Afterword:
I can see how, after reading this account, you might think of Buchinger as a fraud, a hoax, a put-on. He does this, and he does that, and he shows these, and he plays that, and those, and he made these, and invented this, and wrote that, and he wrote that ten times smaller, but he didn't have these, and he didn't have that, and he had fourteen of those…Sure he did.
Were Buchinger a fraud, hoax or put-on, there are only a handful who would know this to be the truth. Jay, we assume, would be in the college of deans to this scholarship. There are secrets out there, we all know, and there are caretakers to those secrets. I know things of people in the public sphere that are supposed to be kept close-to-the-vest, by way of example, and I have none of the depth of experience or care of the collection that Jay does. I would imagine his arcana — outside the necessary vault of secrets demanded by his profession — to be large and well appointed.
The options would be that either Buchinger was a fake in his time, or that he is a modern creation of a hoaxer, for some reason unknowable. It is easier to pass false material connected to real people, of course. A painting by this Dutch master, if executed well, will fetch a much more handsome price than a collection from a strange man with incredible talents.
Perhaps, unlike the woman Jay mentions who appeared to give birth to rabbits (whom some physicians confirmed as legitimate, until she was later found out), the hoax was never exposed, and we are but left with ephemera that mark the outside of it, without understanding its center.
In the modern day, what such person would pull a hoax like this, and to what great end?
Like many things in our life that are unprovable and unknowable (any hoax, given sufficient funding and talent is unprovable; occasionally, the truth is even uncovered as a hoax), perhaps we take a clue from the religious, who offer in their mysteries a view of the world apart from the one that our mundane experiences appear to suggest. It seems to me the world is certainly more fantastical and just with a character like Buchinger in its past. Let us go on faith. Let us live in that world.
And Jay, who now is the official biographer of the Greatest German Living, has brought more than just mystery to the engaged reader. He has brought a peek into the life of this most extraordinary man Buchinger. He has brought intrigue, wonder, and a delicious glimpse inside his own collection — something he knows his amateur admirers consider a sort of fantastical land filled with unknown wonders.
Maybe, like me, you could imagine no greater Shangri-La than a guided tour through Mr. Jay's collection. But since I'm sure that privilege is granted only in extremely rare circumstance, to the most noble members of his inner circle, the lay fans of Mr. Jay will have to rely on his largess in regards to his writing. What a treat, then, to have this volume. What a treat, then, to have Ricky Jay.
Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.
Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox