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New-York Historical Society’s ‘Summer of Magic’ is rare chance to see Copperfield, Houdini artifacts

Some items, such as Copperfield’s death saw and Houdini’s milk can, normally reside in a private museum in Las Vegas.

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The "Summer of Magic" exhibit includes David Copperfield's 1950's "Mysto Magic Kit," as well as several other artificats from the magician's childhood. Photo Credit: Glenn Castellano

New-York Historical Society curator Cristian Petru Panaite is a Muggle, but he still feels a personal connection to the magic of David Copperfield.

Both men were on hand June 15 to introduce the museum’s new “Summer of Magic” exhibit, drawn largely from Copperfield’s private collection. Panaite, who was born in Romania, recalled watching Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear, and how moving the experience was.

“In ’91 or ’92 . . . I remember my parents around the TV, and it was so powerful because obviously we had just come out of Communism,” he said. “What we didn’t know at the time, was (that) he did this in 1983. Obviously this had been . . . held back.”

“I was censored in Romania!” Copperfield interjected, to easy laughter.

“We’ve come full circle,” Panaite said, a bit awe-struck by the circumstances. “It’s very special to bring this here. I’m kind of living the impossible, like you say.”

“Summer of Magic” centers around escape artists and sleight of hand — old school magic that inspired kids like Copperfield and Panaite — rather than the witches and spellcasting that have defined the genre since a certain scarred boy-wizard — Harry Potter — first appeared in the U.S. 20 years ago. The exhibit does include a Harry wand, however . . . Harry Houdini that is.

Copperfield’s vast collection of artifacts normally resides in a private museum in Las Vegas, so it’s a rare chance for the public to see things like the milk can used for escape acts by Houdini, who met his wife and assistant Bess while both were performing at Coney Island.

As well as Houdini memorabilia, there is Copperfield’s Death Saw, an illusion that played on audience expectations of the standard cutting-a-person-in-half trick, and display cases dedicated to a few NYC magicians from the past.

There are also shelves filled with tricks that would have been on sale at the city’s olde magic shoppes, such as Tannen’s, which still exists on 34th Street and has been catering to city magicians since 1925.

“Summer of Magic” also includes a film series and evening events. On weekends from Jun. 23 to Aug. 26, historians will portray past magicians, fortunetellers and illusionists.

Any exhibit about magic these days will doubtlessly attract hordes of children (See the countless books, films and TV shows inspired by or imitating that boy wizard and his friends), and said children will likely gravitate to the photo backdrop that gives the illusion of levitation.

The museum has a chance to cast an even more enchanting spell with its unrelated “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” exhibit, which opens in October. Until then, the “Summer of Magic” lasts until Sept. 16.

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