No matter where you grew up, you probably remember going to the circus when it came through town or having fun at local carnivals. When I was a kid, I’d spend hours on carnival rides, and I was equally mesmerized by the gravity-defying stunts and other thrilling shows at the circus. I have so many great memories, that I recently started decorating our auction house with rare, vintage sideshow banners and vintage amusement park rides.
Collectors of circus and carnival memorabilia will go to great lengths to find scarce posters, programs, postcards, pins, buttons, and other trinkets. They’ll collect everything from costumes and admission signs to security badges and even old building permits for the rides.
Many people don’t realize that some of these old items can sell at auction for thousand of dollars. For example, we are fortunate to have several sideshow banners displayed on the walls of our auction house, and collectors view them as valuable pieces of art.
One of my favorite banners that we have displayed in our auction house is a circa 1950s “Facts & Fakes Headless Girl” canvas banner measuring 8’ x 10’. It was painted by Fred G. Johnson, who was the most prominent sideshow banner artist of his time. Johnson was born in Chicago in 1892, and after a 65-year career, he retired in Sun City at age 89, where he lived until he passed nine years later. I really wish I had an opportunity to have met him!
Known as the “Picasso of Circus Art,” Johnson painted colorful, exaggerated clowns, sword swallowers, snake charmers, and freakish people and animals that were designed to pique curiosity. His sideshow banners attracted visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, traveling shows around the country, and all the great circuses, including Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey and Clyde and Beatty.
Though many of his sideshow banners were lost or destroyed, many of them are being preserved in the International Independent Showmen’s Museum in Riverview, Florida and in the Circus World museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Sideshow banners can realize thousands of dollars at auction, even if they are slightly torn. Other memorabilia can also do well. In November 2018, a collection of two circa 1970 silver prints of sword swallower Lady Sandra Reed hit the auction block in Chicago. Their value was estimated at $1,000 to $1,500, but they realized an astounding $28,800.
Antique and vintage memorabilia from Wild West shows and large carnivals, like Mardi Gras, can also do well. For example, colorful Mardi Gras ball invitations, krewe favors and jewelry from New Orleans’ oldest parading organizations, Rex, Comus, Proteus and Momus, are highly collectible.
Circuses and carnivals have changed dramatically since I was a kid. With groups like Cirque du Soleil, it’s still a thrill to attend a show. But there was something sort of magical about circuses and carnivals way back when. Maybe that’s why collectors are willing to pay top dollar for forgotten treasures that captured the imagination and thrilled audiences in big cities and small towns for decades.
Erik Hoyer owns EJ’s Auction & Appraisal in Glendale.