Circus historians, collectors, and enthusiasts turned into passionate bidders at the recent Winter Auction of Circus Collectibles on February 12, 2022, in Sarasota, Florida. Freedom Auction Company’s annual circus auction realized more than $400,000, a record according to Freedom Auction’s owner Brian Hollifield.
“The auction marathon went on for nearly 14 hours,” Hollifield said. “It wasn’t so much the volume of items, but rather the frenzied bidding activity that kept us all on the edges of our seats.” The auction was online and live at the auction house. The most enthusiastic bidders stayed past midnight and into early Sunday morning.
Last year, I reported on the 2021 annual circus auction with a Worthpoint article, “Freedom Auction Company Circus Auction Brings Big Bucks.” This year’s auction doubled the bidding from last year. All prices listed in this article include the 25% buyer’s premium.
Besides the items that come in from around the country, this year’s auction featured the collections of the Woodcock and Ballantine families.
William “Buckles” Woodcock is a legendary elephant trainer and circus performer. Together with his wife Barbara Woodcock, they performed with many circuses, including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
For more than a decade, circus fans have looked forward to reading Buckle’s Blog, “a discussion of Circus History all over the world.” Unfortunately, the blog is no longer active, but 15 years of posts are still on the internet.
This year’s circus auction included countless items from the Woodcock Family Collection—books, programs, couriers, photos, ephemera of all types, equipment, wardrobe, and the oversized “wardrobe” worn by their famous performing elephant Anna May.
Circus photos are highly collectible, especially those from Edward J. Kelty. The Woodcock collection included 18 Kelty photos bringing in nearly $12,000.
Besides the Kelty photos, the Woodcock collection had approximately 20 lots of miscellaneous photographs—hundreds in all. Those lots brought nearly $7,000. In addition, there was a collection of Wild West photos with a winning bid of $2,375.
Among the Woodcock programs were three Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Programs—always very desirable. One was a 1909 program for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West combined with Pawnee Bill’s Far East.
Bill Ballantine was a writer, artist, and professional clown, having run away to join Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in the 1940s. His articles about the circus appeared in magazines of the day such as Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Colliers, Holiday, and True—more than 400 articles in all.
Later he became a publicist for Ringling and, in the 1950s, redesigned Ringling’s midway. His many books include Wild Tigers and Tame Fleas, Horses and Their Bosses, and Clown Alley. Clown Alley is the story of his eight years (1969-1977) as dean of Ringling’s Clown College.
Bill was a good friend. Several years ago, I did a humorous Worthpoint story, P.T. Barnum: An Accidental Collectible, about Bill painting his clown face on a bust of P.T. Barnum.
The Freedom Auction from the Ballantine collection included some of Bill’s original artwork, clown shoes, and some photos. Still, the most important was a collection of 1,000 photo slides of clown college clowns, performers, circuses. Many images show activity behind the scenes.
Circus superstars have been few and far between. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Lillian Leitzel was one of those celebrities. She was a center-ring star with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. During the off-season, in February 1931, she was performing in Europe when she fell from her aerial rigging and died two days later.
The highlight of every circus auction is the bidding for the colorful lithographs printed and posted to advertise the coming show. This year’s auction featured 300 posters, with 45 selling for $1,000 or more. Below are a few of the top sellers.
Freedom Auction Company has two circus auctions each year. You can see a complete recap of this auction by clicking the link: 2/12/2022 Circus Memorabilia Auction. The next auction will be in the summer at a time to be announced and will feature The Gordon Turner Collection.
For more than 50 years, Larry Kellogg has done research projects and consulting work with the Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida, part of the state-owned John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. For over 35 years, he worked with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, much of that time as a regional publicist for the show. One year of that time he was Communications Manager for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus World Theme Park in Central Florida. Larry has been interested in and has collected circus memorabilia since he was a young boy.
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