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The Circus of Weird

Lions and tigers (oh my!), as well as prancing horses and great parades, populate the posters of the great American circuses: Barnum & Bailey, Ringling Bros., Sells-Floto, and others – and we have a plethora of their posters in this auction.

But there’s another kind of circus poster you may not have seen:

Weird Circus. An inexplicable cavalcade of people who balance on wires, objects that balance on people, dogs riding cats like they’re horse jockeys, cockatiels acting as firemen, sea-lion marching bands, wild tumblers, and things we cannot possibly hope to describe. When you’ve had your fill of the Barnum Big Top, mosey on over to Weird Circus. Especially in this topsy-turvy world, a window on Weird Circus may just be the sanest move you make.

Lot 129. Cirque D'Ete. ca. 1886.
35 x 48 1/2 in./89 x 123 cm
Est: $1,400-$1,700

The building is on fire and there are cockatiels to the rescue, in this madcap promotion for Paris’s Cirque d’Éte, which also features tricksy rabbits – one shooting off a pop-gun, another shaving its face. By 1886, when this lunacy was occurring, the Cirque d’Éte had been operating for 45 years. A massy hippodrome across the street from the Arc d’Triomphe, it changed its name almost as frequently as its acts.

Lot 133. Circus Busch. 1897.
36 1/2 x 27 in./93 x 68.3 cm
Est: $1,200-$1,500

Wild horses are dragging this nude away – a rather extreme poster for Circus Busch, which operated in Hamburg in 1891 and moved to Berlin in 1895. In Berlin, they built a huge, 4,300 capacity rotunda which became world-famous. Harry Houdini performed there in 1908.

Lot 127. Knie's Wonder Elephants.
35 1/2 x 50 3/8 in./90.2 x 128 cm
Est: $1,400-$1,700

For nearly a century until 2015, Switzerland’s most famous family-run circus featured elephants. In this undated poster, we see them in all manner of amusement: bowling, performing multiplication, hoisting aloft a pony, running the steeplechase… a perfect poster for children’s amusement. At lower right, the printed words “Berth Richter Gez” can be discerned in lower right.

Lot 126. Lefevre / Looping the Loop Billard.
24 3/8 x 33 1/2 in./62 x 85 cm
Est: $800-$1,000

Rare. Impossible feats of balance are taking place in this poster, and in Lefêvre’s Looping the Loop Billard. Julien t’Felt is mostly known for his film posters. His most enjoyable workspace was at the Antwerp Zoo.

Lot 132. The Yoscarony's Risley Act. 1903.
27 3/4 x 37 3/8 in./70.7 x 95 cm
Est: $1,000-$1,200

A Risley-Act, in circus lingo, is an acrobatic feat with one performer lying on his back, supporting or tumbling a second performer with his feet – as we can clearly see described at the bottom of this madcap poster. If you look closely, you can discern dotted motion-lines that describe the tumbling routes taken. Biographical information on Yoscarony has been lost to history, but a copy of this poster – possibly the only other copy known to the world – is held in the Dutch National Collections of History and Culture.

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