Going, going . . . gone] It's magic: If you want to know how to saw someone in half, then hurry off to Sotheby's, says John Windsor

Now you see it, now you don't. I telephoned Mike Heseltine of Sotheby's and said I wanted to write about his massive sale next week of the stage props and conjuring books of the illusionist Will Ayling, who died last year. 'Does Ayling's own book, The Art of Illusion (lot 1059), tell you how to do the Floating Princess trick?' I asked.

'It does,' he said.

'Good,' said I, 'I've always wanted to tell people how to do that.'

I thought I heard a gasp. Then silence. If I intended to reveal how tricks are done, said Mr Heseltine, a confidant of the Magic Circle's most dextrous luminaries and the founder, 14 years ago, of magic auctions, then he could not co-operate. 'I'm not going to do anything which will spoil the enjoyment of performers or audience,' he said.

It was enough to raise the hackles of any self-respecting defender of freedom of information. How could secrets sold at public auction be real secrets?

By the time I met Mr Heseltine at Sotheby's, I had visited London University's Senate House Library, gained access to a copy of The Art of Illusion and avidly photocopied text and diagrams of the Floating Princess levitation trick. Now, I thought, was my chance to offer that vast underclass unable to levitate the means of accomplishing it by guile.

Having admitted my deceit to Mr Heseltine, I made diagrams in the air, indicating to him that I knew all about invisible suspension wires. He replied with an even more theatrical sweep of the hand, indicating the hoop which the stage magician passes around the floating stage assistant from head to toe - apparently unobstructed. He must have noticed my face fall. 'The hoop in lot 1137 is a perfectly ordinary one,' he said.

We looked at each other and laughed.

Well, who said information should be free? Mr Heseltine is not in the business of giving it away. His job is to sell it - in much the same way as newspapermen. 'Famous actor dies,' say the billboards. You must buy the paper to find out who.

The magic of the stage magic business is that although it takes only average persistence to find out how a trick is done, stage magicians still manage to amaze audiences. The exploits of the duo Penn and Teller, who have revealed how tricks are done on Jonathan Ross's Saturday Zoo (Channel 4), berating the magic profession for using 'cheesy tricks to dupe people' are themselves perpetrating an illusion - that their revelations are the result of intrepid sleuthing.

They are not. Anyone prepared to bid an estimated pounds 300- pounds 400 at Sotheby's could walk away with 14 of Ayling's magic know-how books, including both 1968 and 1972 editions of The Art of Illusion, typescripts and Ayling's correspondence with other illustrious members of the fraternity. The Floating Princess props, including an altar platform, two swords and a hoop, are an estimated pounds 200-pounds 300. It is not even necessary to buy them to discover secrets. Simply attend Sotheby's viewing and examine them for nothing.

The biggest secret, I can reveal, is that secrets come in various sizes. What you may think is a big secret may be only a little one. Private gatherings of the Magic Circle are still amazed by new performances of old illusions which demonstrably could not be achieved by traditional methods. For example, Ayling's book cites a dozen different ways of simulating levitation using mechanical devices which you or I could invent. But dextrous use of the hoop can shatter the preconceptions even of professionals.

As Mr Heseltine said: 'It's not just how it's done, it's how well it's done.' The classic sawing-in-half trick, according to Ayling's book, underwent a technical revolution soon after one P T Selbit first performed it in 1920. Selbit enclosed his 'victim' in the box and equipped her with a razor blade (think about it). The real sensation came later the same year when Horace Goldin allowed head and feet to protrude (mark my turn of phrase) and still sawed the box in half. To draw crowds, he arranged for an ambulance and stretcher party to appear near the theatre beforehand.

At the bottom end of the magic market are the kind of schoolkids' boxed conjuring kits that can be bought from toy shops. (Do not scorn them: Ayling, ever receptive to unexpected insights, collected them). At the higher end are limited-edition magic books, sometimes with a locking clasp, sold for a tidy sum to colleagues - such as the two books on 'Exclusive Magical Secrets' published in 1921 by Will Goldston, est pounds 300- pounds 400 at Sotheby's. According to Mr Heseltine: 'Conjurers tend to be so delighted by their own discoveries that they find it hard to keep the secrets from other conjurers.'

In mid-market are retail enterprises such as Supreme Magic of Bideford, Devon, the world's biggest magic retailer. Harry Price's copy of The Art of Illusion bears the fly-leaf sticker of just such a mail order retailer, indicating that Ayling had not limited the edition.

Supreme Magic's 700-page mail order catalogue has 20,000 customers. But the firm does not scatter its secrets with abandon. The catalogue describes only what the audience sees. You have to buy the apparatus to discover the trick. Secrets are revealed in Supreme Magic's 70- page monthly magazine, Magigram, pounds 15 annually, but potential subscribers have to fill in a questionnaire which is scrutinised by the firm's magical adviser, Ian Adair. As a result, circulation is restricted to 9,000, a fraction of Britain's 20,000-30,000 magic enthusiasts, of whom perhaps 500-600 are professionals.

By tradition, a magician's most coveted tricks are passed down to his stage apprentices or family. But Ayling's son, Tony, told me that none of his father's tricks had been withheld from Sotheby's. He said: 'If we kept my father's tricks they would just be stored away and forgotten. When a magician bids for a trick, it is because he really wants it and will present it properly. That is what I want.'

During his 60-year career, Will Ayling, a past president of the British ring of the International Brotherhood of Magicians developed a reputation for presentation - music, costume changes, atmosphere - and for producing cockerels where others could manage only doves.

Budding magicians seeking secrets will go for lots such as 1076: 32 books by Will Goldston dating from 1903, est pounds 200-pounds 300, or lot 1077: two limited-edition books by Robert Harbin, including pencil diagrams for sawing-in-half, with the same estimate. But even the 22 books by Jimmy Findlay, est pounds 1,000-pounds 1,500 (lot 1071), have not been valued for their secrets, Mr Heseltine said. Seasoned performers regard the entire auction as stage history. It is expected to raise more than pounds 20,000.

As I left Sotheby's I saw the most familiar of all illusions. The sun was descending the sky. Spoilsports of the ilk of Penn and Teller have suggested it is not the sun which moves, but the Earth. I have no intention of taking sides. Whoever created the trick might send me a thunderbolt.

Sotheby's auction: Thursday, 2pm (071-493 8080).

Supreme Magic (0237 479266).

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Arts and Entertainment

Russell Brand at an anti-austerity march in June
peopleActor and comedian says 'there's no point doing it if you're not'
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say


Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Going down the wrong road: parking fines are
nudging people into debt difficulties

Charges related to car parking rising and leading to serious money woes

Going down the wrong road: parking fines are nudging people into debt difficulties

Stacks of income: Drax is among the companies in Neil Woodford’s portfolio that he believes will pay strong dividends

Mark Dampier: Woodford’s young companies could be the stars of the future

Stacks of income: Drax is among the companies in Neil Woodford’s portfolio that he believes will pay strong dividends

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange

Simon Read: The markets might not be calm but you should be

Don't panic, it’s a wise idea to check investments regularly to ensure they are on target for your hoped-for returns

Only six per cent of the 13,000 new homes bought during Help to Buy’s first nine months were in London

Money Insider: Help to Buy must be boosted by building

With little or no wage growth being seen in the UK, increasing house-price inflation could see the number of first-time buyers slide further, unless there’s a new accelerated house building programme

House buyers can take their pick of more than 3,500 home loans, the most available since the financial crisis

Simon Read: Those cheap home loans may be built on shaky foundations

You should ignore the headline offers and trickery and work out the total cost of borrowing under different deals

Denise Leigh, who appeared in a production
of Rigoletto with Alan Opie, was left without an essential service

The opera singer, the broadband delay and why customers aren’t divas if they expect a good service

Denise Leigh, who appeared in a production of Rigoletto with Alan Opie, was left without an essential service

Problem debt adds £8bn cost to the economy

A charity has calculated the cost to us all of unmanageable debt – from lost productivity to the extra demands on the NHS

Payday loan stores are to face tougher regulations after moves proposed by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) call on more responsible lending

Calls for payday lenders to sign up to an officially recognised price comparison site

The regulators are at last tackling the high-profile payday lenders, but they appear to be ignoring the growing problem of internet loan firms

According to the research, only one in five customers trusts their energy company

Rap for energy firms won’t stop the rising prices

As the cold weather hits, the question of soaring bills will be felt by each of us at home

Nikki Galloway has enthusiastically embraced buying and selling over the internet

Selling goods online: The pros and cons

Nikki Galloway (above) sells jewellery via her own website as well as on Facebook, Amazon and Bouf

The city of Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu with the Remarkables mountain range in the background.

You can have it all: Asian stocks get on the dividend bandwagon

Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand. The country’s stock market was boosted last month on John Key’s re-election

Staff at work in the packet and parcel section of the Royal Mail's Swan Valley mail centre

Bargain hunter: Halfords’ zero-VAT child car seats are cheap and with a safety message

Royal Mail is cutting its small parcel charges from 20 October

Elderly people living in certain countries abroad are being denied pension rises

Anyone who moved to countries including Australia, Canada, South Africa and a 100 other places, have had their pensions frozen at the rate it was paid at when they left the country

Governor money plans to save clients time and cash with its online service

Simon Read: Relegate struggling funds from your plans

Every fund has good years and bad, but consistent underperformance over a number of years points to something more fundamental

Investments: Spot the difference and pick a fund that’s ready to go it alone

Nick Train thinks luxury fashion brand Burberry is one of the companies that has prospered in digital marketing

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Senior Pensions Administrator

    £23000 - £26000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

    Corporate Actions Administrator / Operations Administrator

    £25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Corporate Actions Administrator / Operations Admini...

    Customer Service Executive / Inbound Customer Service Agent

    £18 - 23k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Customer Service Executiv...

    ASP.NET Web Developer / .NET Developer

    £60 - 65k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a ASP.NET Web Developer / ....

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album