A Late 19thC Carved & Polychrome Painted Dummy Prop Head; Ex Harry Houdini; By Repute

Origin: Presumed American
Period: Late Victorian
Provenance: Ex Harry Houdini (1874 –1926); By Repute
Date: c.1900
The Whole: 23” high x 15” wide x 7” deep
The Head: 9” high x 6.5” wide x 7” deep

The beautiful polychromed mannequin or prop head primitively carved in the round, now wonderfully worn with age, of a male with the hair now lacking, bearing traces of paint, with a fabric bow tie and shoulders to a cylindrical wood support swaddled in period linen; the whole purported to be a portrait of Houdini and to appear in place of his own head in his disappearing acts, and surviving from the zeniths of the nineteenth century.

Condition wise the head is in un-meddled with condition and has not been overpainted or restored in any way. There are areas of gnarled loss to the rear with crude but honest repairs as photographed and some later nails here and there to the support. The shoulder pieces have been replaced later but still have age. The polychrome decoration is most evident still in the lovely blue pigment to the eyes. Interestingly Houdini, had, according to his doctor; "medium blue eyes" with brown flecks around the pupils. His hair is noted as being "wavy", black (as does this head) "now about 5/6 gray", and thinning over the top.

The former owner of this head purchased it with the provenance that it was used by Harry Houdini in his disappearing acts, though there is no current evidence to confirm this. The former owner also wrote a note about the head:

“I am an artist, and during the 70s & 80s, I collected and used heads to use as references for people I know in my paintings. My friend from America, Eleanor Hickok (supposedly Wild Bill Hickok's great great granddaughter), and I found this head in a local junk shop. It was my favourite head of all my collection; always on display in my house! The children didn't like him and were frightened of him. He was purported to be a portrait of Houdini and appear in place of his own head in his disappearing acts. You can still see the remnants of stage blue and pink makeup on his face. Obviously, he had hair on his rigged scalp. I love his bow tie. I would love it if you could restore him to his original "human" condition so that we could see him as he really was and sit in my house as a guest as before, and Eleanor's memory could be preserved.”

If this was indeed once part of Houdini’s acts then it becomes extremely important and incredibly valuable, though one would need to invest a lot of time to try to garner the information needed to prove it; undoubtably it would prove well worthwhile. It does have a resemblance to him and one would need to try to establish if a photograph exists that shows the head or indeed any reference to it in myriad of writings and texts on the man. The blue to the eyes and the black to the hair, both of which Houdini had, are a solid starting point.

Alas, whether this was Houdini’s prop or not, it remains a wonderful piece of folk art in its own right and proves highly desirable in both the decorative and collectors’ markets. If it was Harry’s then it becomes a very important object indeed.