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Circus Auction Includes Vintage Posters, Rare Costumes and Much-Sought-After Photos

Valuable items from more than 100 different circuses will be up for sale this Saturday.

By Rachel Suwak January 9, 2020

One of the posters being auctioned off this Saturday.

Saying Sarasota has a rich history with the circus is like saying Siesta Key has a lot of sand. More than 90 years ago, John Ringling decided to move the winter home of his circus to Sarasota, which created an unbreakable bond between our town, the circus and the Ringling Brothers. A circus auction that takes place this Saturday, Jan. 11, honors that bond and allows patrons to take home a bit of history from the Ringling Brothers and more than 100 different historical circuses.

If you know your circus history, you know Jack LeClaire. LeClaire was a famous clown with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey beginning in the 1910s and lasting until the late 1940s. As a clown, he created two notable inventions: a fat suit that functioned like an umbrella that could expand and retract, and a prop costume by the name of Spark Plug. Spark Plug was based off a famous cartoon called “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.” LeClaire turned this character into a costume, which he would wear while he pranced around like a horse. Both the fat suit and Spark Plug costume are up for auction this Saturday.

Jack LeClaire's Spark Plug costume.

The auction also boasts more than 300 different circus lithograph posters. "That's a phenomenal figure, to have that many different varieties," says auctioneer Brian Hollifield. More than just souvenirs, the posters were actually once advertisements that were posted in towns before the circus arrived. People peeled these posters off of buildings in order to save them as a piece of history. 

Another poster set to be auctioned off.

The baggage wagon that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey used up until the closing of the circus in 2017 will also be available. The baggage wagon is the container that brought all the circus’ tents and equipment from one town to the next while it was traveling.

Also for sale will be pictures by renowned circus photographer Edward J. Kelty, who took much-sought-after photos of the Ringling Brothers’ Golden Jubilee in 1939, among many other images. Kelty’s photos have previously sold for more than $8,500. Kelty was a banquet and wedding photographer by day and escaped to photograph the circus world at night. In his photos, the viewer can sense an artful symmetry and a fascination with the colorful, unique and sometimes insane circus world.

One of Edward J. Kelty photos of the Ringling Brothers’ Golden Jubilee in 1939.

The auction also includes an archive of photos and a scrapbook from The Flying Jordans, a family aerial troupe. The Jordans were a world-renowned troupe who claimed much of the attention from circus goers in the years they were active, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Their most extensive diary of their happenings throughout those years is being auctioned, as well as the family’s scrapbook, which documented their lives on tour.

The auction has items from more than 50 sellers, and the pieces come from more than 100 different circuses. "This collection has been gathered from around the world," says Hollifield.

The auction's inspection and preview takes place 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 10, while the auction starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 11. (Doors open at 8 a.m.) The auction will be held at Freedom Auction Company, 1601 DeSoto Road, Sarasota. Click here for more info.

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