The Magic Box
Item acquired by the
The magic wand once belonged to Buatier de Kolta, the silk
scarves to Tony Slydini, the ivory balls were handled by Dai Vernon,
the packs of cards were gifts from Ricky Jay and Michael
Skinner, the cups are Paul
Fox originals, the small accessories were hand-made by Eddy Taytelbaum,
and so on. In its current form, the box apparently dates from the
1950s or 1960s.
Report by the Curator
I still remember that hot, dry summer of 1975!
I had been interested in magic for some time, a passion I
shared with my love for all things fantastic and strange. That was
the year I left school and went off to university.
I had a full three months of holiday to just hang around doing
whatever I fancied...
A friend who was acquainted with my taste for the strange
told me about a curious little shop on Rue d'Arenberg in
central Brussels, near
du Roi et de la Reine and opposite the cathedral.
"I hope it's still around when you get there, because it looks
pretty run down. The few items on display look like they've been there
forever; I haven't even been inside yet," my friend told me.
My curiosity piqued, I headed into town with the
meagre amount I had saved
from my pocket money.
Hauntiques, Curiosities, Collector's Items
On display in the window were sets of ancient and colourful Spanish
cards, still in sheets and uncut. There were dusty books on a wide
range of subjects, as varied as astrology, perfumery and how to
make jam, a few African masks that had been gnawed at by bugs, an old
framed engraving of the Royal Park in Brussels and other objects that were not
so easy to identify.
It was impossible to see the interior of the shop, for it was
shrouded in shadows.
A sign hanging on the door read:
Shop opens at noon
I still had 45 minutes to wait, so I decided to walk over to the
nearby Grand'Place. I was on edge; that strange word hauntiques
was bothering me. Surely the spelling was a bit odd, if nothing else.
At the stroke of midday
I was back in front of the closed door.
I was beginning to fry in the sun, simmering in my own impatience.
At 12.30, I heard a key turning in the lock, followed by a gust of
cool air. An old man in a traditional bookseller's apron appeared at
the open door and smiled at
me. He stepped aside to let me in.
"Come in and leave me some of that joy you've
brought with you!", he said, paraphrasing Dracula. He was
accompanied by an old blind dog that seemed to have no trouble
finding its way around the sea of bric-a-brac in the shop, a sort of
Cerberus perfectly at home in his world of darkness.
"Don't mind Oedipus, he doesn't bite.
What can old man Lampernisse do for you, sonny?
Would you like to buy a genuine Jivaro shrunken head removed from
the shoulders of a careless explorer,
American Indian fetishes, a genuine map of the seven cities of Cibola
tatooed onto the skin of a Spanish Jesuit or perhaps this meerschaum
pipe with its Mephistophelian head?
Or maybe you were looking for the original copy of Dom Augustin Calmet's
treatise on spirits or Croze and Orazi's magic calendar?"
"I'd just like to browse for a bit if you don't mind."
He told me to make myself at home.
The long shop was filled with
hundreds of assorted items, accompanired by a smell of great age and antiquity
- a cross between polishing wax, dust and old Dutch tobacco combined
with the more subtle scent of Egyptian incense.
I felt like I was in the lair of Michel de Ghelderode, Jean
Ray, James Ensor or Félicien Rops - or even the shadowy
nooks and crannies of an Arab bazaar, Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop
or H.G. Wells' magic shop.
In places, the threadbare carpet - barely visible in the feeble light issuing from three
bare bulbs - revealed a mosaic of black and
white tiles. To the left of the counter, an ancient cash register
stood next to books of laws dating from 1717. An old wooden cube
served as a stand for a Bible illustrated by Gustave Doré,
next to a walking stick
that had been through at least two wars.
I didn't know what to look at first.
A place like this existed out of ordinary time and space!
An anatomical chart of a bat (from Sweden)
was nestled alongside a Victorian tea reading cup, a small silver
sundial decorated with astrological signs and a painting of Little
Red Riding Hood by the talented but underrated Vincent Devignez. A
superb Russian princess doll and a cheap imitation plaster
Egyptian cat sat imposingly on a Yoruba divination board. Entire
uncut sheets of foreign playing cards half concealed an image of Psyche
in Prague inlay, a leather captain's mask made by Sartori and
polished by use was pointing its nose at an old blue leather case
covered with labels from countries and places visited and a fine
film of dust.
I carefully opened it and found inside a brown cardboard box on
which was written:
MAGIC and other feats of
Illusions, evil spells and sleight-of-hand
I removed the box from the leather case. It was a beautiful and
unusual looking magician's box.
Intrigued, I opened it and looked inside.
The contents were completely unlike what you would find in similar
boxes sold in large toy stores. There was no
magic egg cup, no inexhaustible vase made of plastic, no
nail-thru-finger, no colour-changing silk.
Instead there were beautiful, finely decorated wooden objects,
two small Egyptian sarcophaguses, a miniature spirit cabinet,
Chinese dominoes, a beautiful set of copper cups, two or three
silver coins, a magic wand made of ebony and ivory with
a pack of Deland Nifty Deck cards, several balls made
from elephant ivory and 20 or so other items whose use I was
wholly unfamiliar with.
A genuine air of mystery rose from the box, and a Japanese
inscription on the cover seemed to be warning the user about the
dangers of opening forbidden doors...
"Where does this beautiful box come from?" I asked the
"Ah, young man! You've found the only item in the shop
that is not for sale. At least not to just anyone. A keen amateur
magician who had heard about this box once offered me a small
fortune for it, but I turned him down.
There are two theories about where it came from. According to the
first theory, it has been handed down from one lover of the magical
arts to the next over several generations. Everyone who has owned it
has added his own little touch,
one of his favourite tricks, a bit of his soul. Anyone who acquires
the magic box becomes its guardian and must add something to it before handing
it over to the next person. It doesn't matter if he has it for just
a few days or his whole life, he must hand over part of his
knowledge. Any attempt to shirk this rule would lead to unimaginable
consequences for that irresponsible person.
An amateur would want to own this treasure so he could hide it
his collection; only an unrefined, greedy man thinks that money
can buy everything and does not care about the true value of
things. In any case, the box itself decides who it will belong to
According to the second legend, the box comes from France and was
assembled by a mysterious character known as the Collector. Nobody
knows his name, what he looks like, or how old he is - but he is
rumoured to be very old indeed. He is the Guardian of the Surnateum,
a Museum of Supernatural History. He is a keen collector of
phantasmagoria, chimaeras and coquecigrues, a conjurer and magician.
It is said that he has travelled the world in order to collect the
rarest and most precious relics which the masters of conjuring and
produced so that he could put together this unique box. He made a
pact with the magic wand, an oath that he swore to the soul of the
greatest of the French conjurers.
Owned by Robert-Houdin, it was handed down to his disciple Hamilton
and then spent some time with Buatier
de Kolta so that the transmission of the knowledge it represents
would not be lost in a world of glitter and artifice. It ended up at
the Surnateum, a sanctuary for haunted antiques. In accordance with
the wishes of Robert-Houdin, the Collector convinced such well known
figures as Dai Vernon, Tony Slydini, Michael Skinner, Shigeo Takagi, Eddy Taytelbaum,
Fred Kaps and Tayade - legends in the secretive world of
sleight-of-hand artists - to contribute part of their vast knowledge
and a small personal souvenir to this magic box - the aim being to
enrich the box and make it into a genuine tool for initiation.
And even if the truth lies somewhere between these two theories, I
would tend to favour the latter.
Unlike the circus, the theatre or the 'classical' arts, sleight of
hand is not taught in any school - partly because of the secrecy in
which it is learned. It is handed down from master to disciple,
but you need good teachers and attentive, conscientious pupils!
This box, lying on the frontier between various forms of magic, is a
merciless but highly effective master.
In any case, those who possess it - the chosen ones - are
permanently spellbound and have made an active contribution to their
This explanation was so fantastic it just had to be true. So,
with some doubts in my head but curious to have a go, I asked him if
I could take the test. The old man smiled and removed a small green
box, along with a few coloured rings and a tiny magic wand. He told
me that this miniature 'haunted cabinet' had been made out of wood from
the cabinet belonging to the Davenport brothers, celebrated
spiritualists who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had travelled around the world to demonstrate the rapping spirits which
manifested in their cabinet. In France, a supremely Cartesian land,
the audience, suspecting trickery, destroyed the cabinet and drove the brothers out of
the country. Later, the Collector - who
had recovered one of the panels from the cabinet - asked a famous
creator of enchanted toys by the name of Eddy Taytelbaum to fashion this miniature cabinet out of the wood he gave him. Taytelbaum, a
Dutch magician, was born in Paramaribo, Suriname, sometime in or around 1925.
In his youth he had met and befriended all kinds of strange
characters, sorcerers and shamans. He had a critical influence on
the items in the magic box. A modern-day Gepetto,
Taytelbaum created many of the minitature
masterpieces in the magic box."
The old man asked me to choose a coloured ring and to place it in
the bottom of the spirit cabinet. He added two or three rings in
different colours and closed the doors. After shaking the cabinet to
mix the rings up, he inserted the magic wand through two holes
at the top of the box so that both ends of the wand were protruding
from either side of the box. There was no way that anything could get onto
the wand since it was suspended at least 5 cm above the rings. He
picked up a small brass bell and shook it gently.
The tinkling was supposed to awaken the spirit in the box.
When he opened the cabinet, my ring was suspended on the
wand; somehow it had penetrated solid wood. Impossible!
"It would seem that the box likes you!"
My life changed at that instant. I was won over and anxiously
asked how much the Magic Box cost. I could tell it was going
to cost a lot!
The old man asked me for all the money I had on me, no matter how much
I only had 1,001 francs! A ridiculously small sum for a box that
was easily worth 1,000 times that price. But I couldn't give him
anything more. The price itself was a form of initiation;
everything was reset to zero.
I paid for it.
The old man put the money into a brown envelope, sealed it and
handed me the box.
"The box is yours, young man. Remember: this is a serious
responsibility you've accepted! It will bring you all the happiness
in the world as well as all the suffering borne by those who
practice an art. But from this moment on, your existence will become
unique for you and those close to you. When you no longer have any
use for it, hand it down to someone else - but make sure that you
have added something to it.
Oh, and one more thing: The box does not have any instructions. You'll have to
seek and learn on your own. Go out and meet those who have links
He also gave me a magic book in English entitled Our Magic
by David Devant and Nevil Maskelyne, as well as a book on cheating at
cards, saying that everything I needed to get me started could be
found in these pages. They were both first editions.
I thanked him and left the shop overjoyed.
I remember that it took me two hours to walk home in the
blistering sun because I didn't even have enough to buy a bus
ticket, but the long walk went by in a flash.
A few weeks later, I tried to return to the shop to find out more
about the box, but the shop was gone.
Closed for good!
I don't know what became of the old man with his blind dog, but he
hadn't lied: the box contains a multitude of magic, of many different kinds.