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
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's pic YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Sell it with flowers: competition is 'intense' for homes with outside spaces

Gardens add a tenth to the value of your home

A London estate agent yesterday put a price on having a garden. David Pollock of Greene & Co reckons it can increase a property's value by a tenth.

Spectators at the Isle of Wight music festival watch the World Cup on the big screen. Betting promotions were a feature of the tournament
Lenders have been accused of persuading vulnerable people to borrow expensive credit

Payday loan firms accused of bombarding vulnerable people with nuisance phone calls

Payday loan firms have been accused of bombarding financially vulnerable people with nuisance phone calls, after a debt charity reported that a third of its clients were plagued by the messages.

The foundation proposed that the Government sets up a scheme to help people avoid losing their homes

Mortgages: 'Homeowners could trade down to shared ownership to defuse rate rise timebomb'

A plan to defuse a “mortgage debt timebomb” when interest rates rise is published today amid warnings that 2.3m households could struggle with their repayments.

Current accounts are too costly and confusing, says CMA as it announces investigation into Britain's biggest banks

Competition regulator to investigate market where it's hard for customers to make comparisons and the big banks' charges can be set too high
All the signs have been pointing up for buy-to-let, but there are clouds on the horizon

Buy-to-let: is it a boom or a bubble fit to burst?

People borrowing to be landlords could face the same restrictions as homebuyers, with MPs voicing fears that property speculation may be overheating the market

Moment of truth for payday lenders: Watchdog plans to curb cost of short-term loans

The chief of the City watchdog, Martin Wheatley, spoke exclusively to The Independent's Simon Read about its attempts to control the worst excesses of unscrupulous high-cost credit companies

Consumers given power to choose a green deal

How would you like to be able to choose how your electricity is made and even where it come from? It may sound futuristic and fanciful but the independent supplier Co-operative Energy has made it a reality this week.

'Scrap the trap': calls for change grow as banks are told to play fair with loyal savers

City regulator says existing customers suffer worst rates

Motor insurers divided on proposals for whiplash ban

MPs want medical evidence for claims. Will this bring higher premiums?

British Gas repays £1m for mis-sold deals

British Gas was yesterday forced to pay back £1m to its customers after mis-selling them energy deals.

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

    1st Line Support Technician / Application Support

    £20000 - £24000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider of web based m...

    Team Secretary - (Client Development/Sales Team) - Wimbledon

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Secretary (Sales Team Support) - Mat...

    Accountant / Assistant Management Accountant

    Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an Assistant Management Ac...

    Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

    £600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star