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Houdini locks, manacles will do disappearing act
By Eric C. Rodenberg

GARNET VALLEY, Pa. — Expect magic – big time magic – at the Feb. 21-22 Briggs Auction south of Philadelphia.

The private collection of Pat Croce – noted entrepreneur, former president of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and author – is the current “buzz” within the close-knit community of magicians. Many collectors of magician devices and ephemera related to the conjurer’s art believe this auction could be a chance of a lifetime.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if (magician) David Copperfield will be out there bidding on some of these things,” Croce says. “The magic world is really interested … it’s going to be great fun.”

During the past 40 years, Croce has amassed one of the top collections of artifacts from the world-famous impresario and magician Harry Houdini (1874-1926).

Now that Croce is downsizing, moving into a townhouse with a fraction of the room his mansion offered, much of his unusual collection will be auctioned by Briggs.

In addition, the Croce Collection will feature a mother lode of antique furniture and decorative pieces from his home in the tony neighborhood of Villanova. There are French antiques, porcelains, Italian marbles and fine bronzes.

But, it’s the “magic” in the auction that makes it extraordinary.

Not many auctions this year will sell a collection of ancient padlocks used in Houdini’s escape acts, including 12th century European castle locks, two keys and a pair of handcuffs – all presented in a two-sided wood shadow box with velvet lining (pre-auction estimate $50,000-$70,000). The box appeared in the 1953 movie Houdini, according to Croce.

Or what other auction will feature a collection of Houdini escape shackles? This lot includes wrist, neck, ankle manacles and a large padlock with provenance descending to Houdini’s stage assistant and wife, Beatrice.

The 100-lot sale of magic and Houdini memorabilia will also include artifacts from the famous illusionist’s water torture cell, unpublished photographs, posters and show advertisements.

Lots also include publicized challenges, exemplified by the one from a construction company offering to nail the escape artist inside a box, wrap it with ropes, then nail the ropes securely to the box.

On April 15, 1910, Houdini escaped from such a setting on stage in Sydney, Australia. His escape time was 11 minutes.

“One thing I admire about Houdini is that he was a great marketer,” Croce said. “He was known all over the world, and this was long before we had the technology we have today. What he did was amazing.”

Croce is a busy man, writing books, traveling the speakers’ circuit, overseeing restaurants he owns in the Florida Keys, and managing his Pirate’s Museum in St. Augustine. But, each Sunday – for at least an hour – Croce puts his life on hold and gets out a deck of cards. There are no other players. It’s not a game. It’s serious magic.

“I’m always working it,” he says. “Magic has been one of my passions, since I was a freshman in college. It’s a way to escape reality. Some of these tricks are simple … I like the simple tricks, but it’s the pattern, the precision, the presentation … just working it until it’s perfect. That’s what I like.”

Croce doesn’t work a stage, “but when I’m at a party, give me a deck of cards and I’ll blow you away.”

Croce is “no one trick pony,” and although he has hundreds of tricks with coins, cards and other props in his repertoire, it’s the “signature trick” he craves.

“That’s the kind of trick that magicians play on magicians,” he says. These are the tricks he saves for magician conventions. “That’s doing real magic.”

The entrepreneurial magic that Croce worked to turn a physical therapy practice into a chain of centers he sold for $40 million in the early ’90s is nearly legendary. It also helped him step up to the big leagues in collecting.

The fine furnishings and décor from the $8 million mansion in which the couple formerly lived can be credited to the tastes of his wife, Diane.

“To me, if the chair is comfortable, I’m fine,” he says.

But the awe-inspiring and larger-than-life sculptures can be attributed to Pat Croce – the antiquities from China, Paris and Rome. The Chinese warriors, David stepping on the head of Goliath, the Four Seasons – “I’m the crazy Italian who loves statues,” he says.

“In addition to a few pieces of Sixers memorabilia, there is a very cool vintage gas pump and a pinball machine of Pat’s that we will be auctioning as well as bedroom furnishings, china, glassware, decorative items and some cool Samurai pieces,” said Stephen Turner, director of business development at Briggs.

Although there is a stitch in Croce’s voice when he (unconvincingly) lauds the virtues of downsizing, he leaves the impression that he has more tricks up his sleeve for the future.

“There’s just something different about people who collect,” he says. “I don’t care what it is they collect, but once you meet an antique collector they want you to delve into their world. There is that passion to know more and to share it with others. The learning never ends. That’s why people who collect antiques are more interesting.”

Contact: (610) 566-3138

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