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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Suggested Topics
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
The cost of a buildings policy has dropped by 10.1 per cent over the year, with the cost of a contents policy falling by 8.2 per cent

Simon Read: Mild winter cuts the cost of home insurance

The average quote for a buildings and contents policy has fallen by 3.6 per cent

Don't count your retirement money yet: employers will stop receiving a pension rebate next year and their staff may lose out

Defined-benefit pension schemes: Rebate change in 2016 may leave you out of pocket

Employees in defined-benefit schemes are held up as the lucky ones, but the state pension scheme will be overhauled in April 2016
Labour will raise the national minimum wage to more than £8 an hour by October 2019 (EPA)

Barclays new Blue Rewards hands cash to customers. What’s the catch?

Joining Barclays Blue Rewards costs £3 a month but then lets customers in for handouts of up to £15 a month

New research reveals that despite the recovering economy, four out of five low-income households have seen no sign of their financial situation improving

Hard-up families could be eligible for financial help

A charity is urging anyone struggling financially to see if they could get help from the state

When is the best time to buy foreign currency?

Video: With an election looming, a hung parliament could hit sterling

General Election 2015: Vote for the party that will boost your finances

Experts warn that the general election is unlikely to lead to stable markets. Simon Read talks to two investment managers who are advising caution

Make the most of your money in 2015-16: The end of the tax year is the beginning of the next...

The new tax year brings with it a raft of new rules and regulations

General Election 2015: Will pension reform be a major factor?

Video: Tom McPhail, head of pensions at Hargreaves Lansdown, says May's outcome could alter your pension

General election 2015: David Cameron's promise brings uncertainty to investors

Video: Simon Read talks to Fidelity's Tom Stevenson

Have you won one of the £1m Premium Bonds' jackpots?

Video: The Independent's Personal Finance Editor runs you through the key facts about Premium Bonds

Give me the money: but not all providers are ready for transfers to Junior Isas

Parents will be able to switch dormant child trust funds to more competitive Junior Isa

Millions of dormant junior savings accounts were yesterday given the go-ahead to swap to better deals as the Government agreed to allow switching. Samantha Downes reports
Hard labour: a woman bears the load in a factory. But equal treatment is causing pension problems

Women to lose benefits from contracted-out pension scheme

Workers were promised that the state would pay inflation increases on parts of their pensions. But now the DWP disagrees
The Budget, says one critic, should have done more to encourage construction of affordable homes

Help for buyers but where are the homes?

A vote-winning Budget promised less tax, greater savings flexibility, and government handouts for first-time housebuyers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

    £30 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst with experienc...

    Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

    £24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Ashdown Group: Sales Team Leader - Wakefield, West Yorkshire

    £21000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged b...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders